At the end of a one lane gravel road off Georgetown Pike, tragedy struck on Monday, Dec. 8. The historic barn that housed dozens of animals for the Leesburg Animal Park caught fire and burned to the ground. Numerous small animals from a local petting zoo were killed in the blaze.
Shirley Johnson owns Leesburg Animal Park and the property in Great Falls where the animals were living. Lost in the fire, according to Johnson, were many small mammals, such as ferrets. "We has a lot that weren't in the barn, so that's the good news, it wasn't a total loss," said Johnson.
Two young calves and a Nilghi, a type of antelope, were also killed in the fast moving fire. The Nilghi, said Johnson, "was supposed to be in a show at the Kennedy Center tomorrow. I'll have to see if they want a replacement, a donkey or something."
Many of the animals at Leesburg Animal Park are working animals that appear in theatrical productions, in nativity scenes and entertain children at the petting zoo. Johnson is making alternate arrangements for any animals lost that were scheduled to appear in Christmas nativity scenes.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation at this time.
Johnson was not home at the time of the blaze but said it was detected by the barn manager Diadre DiGirolamo. "My husband called to tell me the barn burned down. The gal who works for us found it first. When she went in a stall was already on fire. We had two fire extinguishers in there but in the panic she didn't think about it. She went to get the hose and then there just wasn't anything she could do. We had all the hay in there so it just went up," said Johnson.
Captain Scott Smith at the Great Falls Fire Station, just a few miles from the barn on Black Hills Road, said the fire department had to haul water with them to battle the blaze because there are no fire hydrants at that location.
ÒA significant part of this area doesnÕt have fire hydrant coverage,Ó said Cpt. Smith. The Great Falls Fire Department brought with them a tanker carrying 2500 gallons of water and an engine carrying 750 gallons of water.
Dan Schmidt, a spokesman with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department said, "It was a fully involved fire when we got there. It was burning quite heavily."
In addition to the Great Falls Fire Department, Schmidt said that units from North Point, Reston, Frying Pan Park, Dulles Airport and Loudoun County also responded to the fire. Even with six units on the scene, fire fighters actively fought the blaze for only 45 minutes, according to Schmidt.
"We had three tanker units there because there are not as many hydrants in that area as in other parts of the county," said Schmidt. "Using tankers and laying hose to the hydrants that are further down we were able to put the water on it that we needed to," said Schmidt.
Leesburg Animal Park, the petting zoo is physically located in Leesburg, with the farm and barn location in Great Falls. Earlier, Johnson and her menagerie operated in Reston as The Reston Animal Park, now the Reston Zoo. "There's been a lot of confusion about that. Are we Reston, Leesburg, Great Falls? We are the Leesburg Animal Park and we're here," explained Johnson of the conflicting reports about the location of the fire.
There are still many animals living on the 10 acre property and Johnson said they will rebuild the barn and continue with the business.