Firefighters battle blaze in vacant DC barn; smoke visible for miles

Fire at a vacant two-story barn in Southeast D.C. sends huge amounts of smoke into the air Dec. 3, 2022. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS)
Fire at a vacant two-story barn in Southeast D.C. sends huge amounts of smoke into the air Dec. 3, 2022. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS)
Fire at a vacant two-story barn in Southeast D.C. sends huge amounts of smoke into the air Dec. 3, 2022. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS)
Fire at a vacant two-story barn in Southeast D.C. sends huge amounts of smoke into the air Dec. 3, 2022. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS)
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A large fire in a vacant Southeast D.C. barn sent plumes of smoke high into the air across the nation’s capital on Saturday afternoon.

D.C. Fire and EMS units were called to a vacant two-story structure on the campus of St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital, around 3:45 p.m. Saturday.

Crews arrived to find much of the barn engulfed in flames. A towering column of smoke was visible from across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, before firefighters brought the blaze under control.



Fire officials reported no injuries. A second alarm was called to bring in additional firefighting resources. On Twitter, the fire department said the barn was in imminent danger of collapse late Saturday due to the extensive damage it sustained.

WTOP’s news partner NBC Washington reported D.C. Fire and EMS chief John Donnelly expects the entire barn to have collapsed by the time the fire department is through with its work.

Images shared on Twitter showed the barn’s interior frame and support beams smoldering, with much of the structure a burnt ruin.

Archival images from the Library of Congress describe the wood-framed structure as a cow barn, one of several buildings on a portion of St. Elizabeths’ campus used for agriculture in the late 19th century. According to LOC, the barn that burned down Saturday was built in the 1880s “to accommodate the hospital’s herd of about 100 dairy cattle and their associated dairying operations.”

A 2020 report from the National Capital Planning Commission counted the barn, a nearby horse stable and staff residence as “among the oldest existing buildings on the St. Elizabeths East Campus.”

WTOP has reached to the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, the agency tasked with overseeing operations at St. Elizabeths, for comment.

An image from the Historic American Buildings Survey’s records, taken around 1933, shows the cow barn involved in Saturday’s fire. (Courtesy LOC/HABS)

As many as 100 firefighters responded to the scene. Anticipating a collapse, the fire department worked from the outside for several hours to quell the blaze and remained on the scene past nightfall, knocking down hot spots.

In a Saturday night briefing, Donnelly said that although firefighters had the flames largely controlled, he expects it to take all of Saturday night before the fire is completely put out.

Officials do not yet know what caused the fire.

Hugh Garbrick

Hugh graduated from the University of Maryland’s journalism college in 2020. While studying, he interned at the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, a local paper in Seattle, and reported for the school’s Capital News Service. Hugh is a lifelong MoCo resident, and has listened to the local radio quite a bit.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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