Saved by the Arlington County Fire Department

By Bob Hagemann

After 18 months of delays, supply chain disruptions, and ostensible labor supply shortages, we’re back home. The paintings and pictures have been hung, salvageable furniture has been restored, and most crucial lost items replaced. Yes, we’re back in our home that was saved by the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD), for which we are eternally grateful. 

On July 6, 2021, our home in Lyon Park caught fire. The first sign of fire was at 8:02 p.m., right below the back door stoop, in the hardwood mulch. By 8:10, flames had reached the soffit. We frantically grabbed wallet, purse, and car keys, and ran shoeless to the garage to move our cars to the street. We could already hear the sirens, thanks to neighbors Ron and Kate’s instinctive 911 calls. By 8:15, ACFD was onsite to fight the flames and contain the conflagration. Because of the extreme, dry heat that day, a light but steady breeze, and the proximity of residences in the neighborhood, contingency planning warranted a large response. And boy did the ACFD come prepared! There were 5–6 engines and around 70 personnel engaged in the effort, including a “command” vehicle from which an officer coordinated the battle and monitored progress with walkie-talkie and a large whiteboard. In addition, well over a dozen vehicles were stationed on N. Fillmore Street, ready to swing into action in the worst of circumstances should the flames spread to adjacent homes. 

Several dozen curious and compassionate neighbors gathered to witness the event. Their sympathy was not only for our prospective plight of losing our home, but also for the brave firefighters struggling to contain a potentially explosive situation. Many neighbors sprang right into action, some distributing water, and others even burgers, to the firefighters. The combination of very dense smoke under the eaves and in the top floor loft, the high and rising inside temperature, and the flow of oxygen posed a serious risk of spontaneous combustion, and therefore a possibility of injury (or worse) to the firefighters in the house. Luckily, there were only 2 minor injuries among the firefighters: dislocated shoulders, I think. Our triangular 4–level house, situated on a knoll at the corner of two descending streets, posed special challenges to the firemen. Fortunately, the well-equipped department was able to reach the roof and pierce a hole to enable them to flood the house. By 12:30 a.m., the final spark and other threats had been eliminated, and the house was “secured,” pending the start of urgent remediation services 7–8 hours later. 

We were amazed not only by ACFD’s mastery of firefighting, but also its sensitivity to our own worries and emotional state. It’s hard to describe the emotions and thoughts that overwhelm you watching your home going up in flames. At one point early in the battle, one of the firemen asked if there was anything important that we needed urgently from the house. Yes! A cell phone had been left behind. Despite the risks, he immediately entered the home to search for the phone. Although he was unable to find it, he did not emerge empty-handed; he returned with our laptop computer, a pair of reading glasses, and a pill box. To boot, the Fire Marshall dropped by the next day to confirm everything was ok.

How did the fire start? We may never know for sure; the department’s assessment is neither made public nor released to us. There was hardwood mulch under the stoop, and it can apparently combust spontaneously. I wish I could say I hadn’t charcoal grilled that day, but I had. By 1:45 p.m., my brief cookout was finished, and I closed the grill. At 5 p.m. or so, the grill totally cold to the touch, I moved it a few feet away for storage. A bit more than six hours after grilling, the glow of flames appeared under the stoop, as captured by our security camera.

Some forms of education are costly, not only in dollar terms; this fire was instructional. Beds of hardwood mulch abutting one’s home should be avoided, or at a minimum warrant extra precaution. Having a security camera, even an inexpensive one, can be a very helpful forensic device. Flame-retardant siding is evidently well worth the extra expense. Of course, having adequate insurance is essential.

We remain in awe of ACFD’s response. We should all be grateful for their bravery and expertise. We are also extremely grateful to live among such wonderful Lyon Parkers. And we are of course thankful to neighbor Deb for letting us crash in her home at nearly 3 o’clock in the morning once all the activity on the street had quieted.

Oh! And by the way, we now have a gas grill!