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There is never a "good time" for a fire to occur, and often it is the timing of when a fire occurs that compounds the tragedy and sense of loss; for example, the December holiday season. With the absence of fatal or serious injuries, the tragedy of the loss of a home, a lifetime of personal items, documents, and basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter add to the grief of this extremely personal misfortune. Most fire departments assist displaced residents to ensure that their basic needs are met, albeit for a short time, with the assistance of partner groups such as the American Red Cross.
It is the job of firefighters to respond to an incident, mitigate the emergency and salvage whatever they can, knowing that residents will be assisted through an established relief process. There are times, however, when firefighters are compelled to do more. In mid-December 2007, Prince George's County, MD, firefighters responded to two multi-alarm fires resulting in 50 housing units being uninhabitable and nearly 130 residents without a place to call home. The thought of people being without a place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear during the holiday season led station-level firefighters to do more than what is normally expected of them. The "community" in them came out in a big way.
The first incident occurred on a sunshine-filled, windy Monday morning, Dec. 17. The night before, wind gusts were clocked up to 50 mph in the area. Outages occurred throughout the county from downed power lines. The senior command staff had gathered at Bunker Hill Community Fire/EMS Station 55 for a public relations event involving the assembly of food baskets to be distributed to needy residents. The media event was to have started at 9 A.M., but at 8:45, units from the Beltsville area and surrounding communities, including Montgomery County, were dispatched to a reported fire in a building. Crews arrived quickly at a three-story-in-front/four-story-in-rear garden-style condominium with heavy smoke coming from the building. Firefighters initiated an aggressive interior attack on the fire, which appeared to have started in a unit on the second floor. Northwesterly winds gusting up to 20 mph assisted in the rapid extension of the fire and it quickly became obvious that additional resources would be needed.
The fire moved quickly from the second floor through the upper floors and eventually burned through the roof and started to extend toward an attached building. Fortunately, quick work by firefighters limited extension. Second and third alarms were sounded, dispatching nearly 80 firefighters to the scene. Two firefighters sustained injuries when their facepieces and helmets were knocked off when a ceiling collapsed on them. Both firefighters escaped and were transported to the Burn Unit at the Washington Hospital Center with burns to their upper bodies and smoke inhalation. Two other firefighters sustained minor injuries.
The fire caused $1.5 million in damage and was attributed to an unattended candle left burning in a second-floor unit that ignited nearby combustibles. The candle was being used for illumination during the power outage. Thirty units in two buildings were uninhabitable and 75 residents were displaced. Many residents made their own arrangements with family and friends, but others had no choice but to accept temporary assistance from the fire department and the Red Cross.