BY BILL BROWN
UPDATED: Three firefighters suffered minor injuries while suppressing a Takoma Park house fire early May 14.
Loud, crackling flames licked up the outside wall and flared high above the roof at 6802 Westmoreland Ave., waking neighbors just before 3:00 AM. The first call to the fire department came at 2:54 AM. Three calls were made by neighbors living to the side and rear of the burning house.
The house has been unoccupied for over a decade.
Firefighters quickly knocked the fire back, but battled flames for about an hour. They determined the house had no occupants. No nearby residents were injured and there was little damage to other homes. Next-door neighbor Scott Ward reported some heat-cracked storm windows. Neighbors praised the firefighters for containing the blaze.
Harsh smoke and mist from fire-hoses drifted down the narrow street, which was filled with as many as 20 emergency vehicles. The alarm brought units from at least 10 firehouses, as well as Takoma Park’s. They included Kensington, Wheaton, Riverdale, and College Park.
55 city, Montgomery County and Prince George’s county firefighters fought the blaze, according to spokesman Captain Oscar Garcia of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. 55 is not an unusual number of respondents, said Capt. Garcia, but it does indicate that the initial responders had to call for backup.
The three injured Montgomery County firefighters were all treated and released from a local hospital.
Resident Jean Capps, whose Eastern Avenue property is behind and uphill from the afflicted house said her husband Cavan Capps was startled from sleep by a “popping” noise. Then he smelled the smoke which was filling their bedroom.
“He woke me up and it looked like the whole woods behind our house was one big bonfire,” said Capps. She said her husband immediately hosed down their backyard wooden fence.
“It seemed like it took forever for the flames to die down,” she said.
No residents were injured, and there was light damage to at least one of the next-door homes on Westmoreland. Neighbors evacuated their homes earlier, concerned that the fire could spread. It did not, thanks to the firefighter’s efforts.
Emergency vehicles encountered difficult conditions as they approached the fire. The Takoma Park area is notorious among emergency responders for having narrow streets with restricted access to homes, especially at night when streets are lined with parked cars. Westmoreland Avenue and other connecting streets are further constricted with ongoing utility construction projects. Capt. Garcia said it did not present a significant problem, however.
Narrow streets do not usually impede response time, said Garcia. They do prevent emergency vehicles from getting as close to the fire as firefighters want to, he said. Firefighters like to approach a fire from several angles with full access. Narrow streets and close-together houses, as found in Takoma Park, Bethesda, and other older communities, make it a challenge, he said.
But local resident Becky Smith said she witnessed a fire truck stuck on a retaining wall at the corner of Walnut and Eastern Avenue next to her house. The retaining wall separates what locals call “Big Eastern,” a wide street that runs along the DC/MD border, and “Little Eastern,” a narrow, parallel access road on the Takoma Park, MD side.
Smith said it looked like the truck turned the corner from “Big Eastern” too sharply and got the truck stuck on the low edge of the wall. “I think he might have been trying to go down Little Eastern for some reason. He blocked traffic from other emergency vehicles behind him also trying to turn onto Eastern (or Walnut). I did not witness how it got unstuck but it took fifteen minutes or so and bummed out my dog,” she said.
Randy Cohen, a “Little Eastern” resident confirmed that a truck was caught on the wall. “The fire fighters checked it out for a while and a short time later it left on [its] own.” He was certrain that if the streets were not already choked with emergency vehicles ahead of it, “they could have easily proceeded to the emergency.”
Captain Garcia was unaware of the incident. He said there were no reports of damage to any emergency vehicles or curbs.
A WSSC temporary water main on Westmoreland Avenue was apparently broken by a passing emergency vehicle. And firefighters chainsawed the corner off a wooden fence so their vehicles could get around the Allegheny and Second Avenues corner. This is not an uncommon occurrence on narrow streets, said Capt. Garcia.
Several trucks remained at the scene and work continued in the house until around 7:00 AM.
The cause of the fire is unknown but under investigation. Apparently it started at the rear of the structure, said Capt. Garcia.
Damage to the house was estimated to be $150,000.