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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Winds cut power, spread fires Wash.DC

Dangerous Gusts to 50 mph Wash. DC Area  - National Christmas Tree Falls

Fierce winds fueled brush fires in multiple jurisdictions.

Laris A Karklis/Post

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:07 PM

Dangerous winds, with gusts of up to 50 miles per hour, swept through the Washington region on Saturday, knocking out power to thousands and spawning more than a half-dozen brush fires that swamped 911 call centers and forced the closure of part of Interstate 95 near Laurel because of heavy smoke.
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Officials in Maryland and Virginia battled blazes large and small, leaning heavily on personnel from nearby jurisdictions for help. Prince George's County called in 150 to 200 off-duty firefighters - about double its regular weekend staffing - to battle the blazes. Montgomery County also put out a call for additional personnel to staff stations while others were fighting fires.

No fire-related deaths or injuries were reported. However, the National Christmas Tree, on the Ellipse near the White House, was toppled by the fierce winds.

According to The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, a high wind warning was in effect for much of Saturday. Gusts of up to 50 miles per hour were recorded in some parts of the region. By mid-day Saturday, more than 18,000 customers were without power in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.
The most stubborn of Saturday's blazes appeared to be a fire that broke out about noon at a mulch plant not far from I-95 in Laurel.

"It's out of control," Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's fire department, said of the blaze, which involved 100 acres of 30-foot-high piles of mulch. "It's burning extremely hot."

Smoke from that fire forced the closure of both directions of I-95 just south of Route 198 and sent thick smoke over parts the area, creating a surreal scene reminiscent of major wildfires on the West Coast.

The smoke irritated the eyes of motorists who were stuck in their cars in traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway after the mid-afternoon shutdown of I-95. Visibility on the parkway was also greatly reduced.

In Laurel's Woodbridge Crossing subdivision, homeowner Steve Beheler said the conditions were the smokiest he's seen in at least 20 years.

"But I'm insured," Beheler, 56, quipped as smoke billowed over his house. "If it comes, I'll just grab the dog and laptop and get out of here."

The first of several alarms came early Saturday morning in College Park, where three University of Maryland students were displaced after a two-story home in the 8400 block of Potomac Avenue caught fire and burned down. All three escaped unharmed.
Then, just a little before 10 a.m., firefighters from Prince George's and three other counties were called to a large brush fire near the Chalk Point Generating Station along the border of Prince George's and Charles counties. The blaze consumed more than 15 acres. Less than an hour later, Prince George's firefighters were then called to the mulch plant fire.

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