WASHINGTON — The fire that tore through a Centreville, Virginia, town house community earlier this month was sparked by smoking materials that had been improperly discarded, fire officials said Monday.
Several of the houses were engulfed in flames, a total of 13 were damaged and three dozen people were displaced. The losses from the May 2 blaze are estimated at $2.2 million, the Fairfax County County Fire and Rescue Department said in a news release.
The town house blaze was one of three major fires that broke out in Fairfax County on the same day earlier this month, said Ashley Hildebrandt, a public information officer with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue. All three fires are now determined to have been caused by improperly discarded smoking materials and were accelerated by dry, windy weather, officials said.
Fire crews were called to the town houses in the 5800 block of Deer Lake Lane at about 1:15 p.m. on May 2. (The fire’s location was initially described as the 5800 block of Watermark Circle).
“It started in a particular town house row and actually by the time our firefighters got there, it had already jumped to the row behind it, which is why it required so many resources to get the fire under control,” Hildebrandt said.
Units from Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties and Fairfax City all responded to the massive blaze.
Fire investigators found the fire started in the rear of an unoccupied town house.
One firefighter suffered injuries and was taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
At around the same time of the town house blaze, fire crews were battling a blaze that broke out inside a senior living apartment complex in Woodmere Court in Centreville. That fire, which officials said was also caused by smoking materials, sent two people to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries and a total of about 75 apartments were evacuated.
Later that day, a fire broke out at the United Bank on Fair Lakes Boulevard in Fairfax County. That was also caused by smoking materials.
Fire officials called the sheer number of fires that day “remarkable” and in part blamed the dry, windy weather, known as “red flag weather.”
In Prince George’s County the same day, a massive fire broke out in a row of town houses under construction, sending billowing black smoke into the air and spreading to a row of occupied houses nearby. That fire caused $8.9 million, fire officials estimated.
Fairfax County fire officials have seized on the spate of fires to remind the public about properly disposing of cigarettes and cigars. So far this year, about 40 percent of fires in the county have been caused by improperly discarded smoking materials, officials said.
“We’re really trying to get the word out to people about how to properly discard of a cigarette, cigar, anything that you might be smoking,” Hildebrandt said. “A lot of people don’t really think about it when they’re putting a cigarette out, but there’s a fire in there, and it can cause significant damage if it’s disposed of in the wrong place.”
Hildebrandt emphasized that material such as mulch and potting soil are not safe places to extinguish a cigarette because they are treated with chemicals that act as accelerants.
“If you put a cigarette out into potting soil, it won’t catch fire right away, but it smolders — it doesn’t go out — and that smoldering can eventually turn into a larger scale fire as we’ve seen with these fires,” she said.
Smokers should make sure they put out their cigarettes all the way every time, Hildebrandt said, using an ashtray or water if necessary.
“Don’t just flick it out the window and not give it a second thought, because those actions can have really significant consequences,” she said.