Ellena Soule is only 8 years old, but her quick action while out selling Girl Scout cookies with her mother, last Saturday, helped prevent a garage fire from destroying an entire home.
"It probably had been burning for an hour," said the homeowner, Richard Bridges of 6587 Rockland Drive in Little Rocky Run, on Sunday. "But if it had continued for another half hour or hour, the whole house would have been involved and we wouldn't be living here today."
Ellena belongs to Troop 2933 of Union Mill Elementary, where she's a second-grader. She also lives in Little Rocky Run and started taking orders for cookies, Saturday after lunch, with her mom, Yuka. Around 12:45 p.m., they went to Bridges' house.
"We rang the bell and nobody answered," said Yuka Soule. "But we smelled smoke and saw smoke coming out of the top of the garage door." Ellena said the smoke seemed strange to her.
"At first, I thought their fireplace was next to the door leading to the garage and the smoke was coming from the fireplace," she explained. "Then I thought it wouldn't be possible for a fireplace to make that much smoke 'cause it's supposed to go up the chimney."
Mother and daughter knocked on the doors of the house next door, and the one next to it, but no one was home at either place. Then some neighbors drove up. "They were three house away, to be exact," said Ellena.
"They saw Ellena's uniform and wanted to buy cookies," said her mom — which they ended up doing. But first, the Soules asked for their help.
"There was a husband and wife and three children in the car," said Soule. "So I asked the husband if he knew the neighbors' whereabouts and if he'd look at the garage because there was smoke coming out. Then his wife called 911."
Firefighters from Centreville's Station 17 on Old Centreville Road responded around 12:50 p.m. to the two-story, single-family home. Just like Ellena, first arriving units reported smoke visible from the front of the attached garage.
"MORE THAN 30 emergency personnel, including EMS, responded," said Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Raul Castillo. "It took 10 minutes to put it out." He also pointed out that females played a significant part in saving the day. Said Castillo: "The 8-year-old girl and her mom took decisive action, and among the first people arriving from Station 17 were three women."
No one was injured, and damage was limited to the garage. Fire officials estimate the damage at $35,000 and say the accidental blaze was caused by inappropriate storage of fireplace ashes inside the two-car garage.
Two engines, two ambulances and two battalion-chief vehicles raced to the scene and, said Ellena, "It was pretty cool when the fire engines showed up." Bridges and his wife arrived home after the fire was out. Said Soule: "The chief told Mr. Bridges what happened, and he came over to thank Ellena."
Bridges is retired military, and he and his wife had left around 9:30 a.m. to go shopping at the Fort Myer commissary. Returning around 1 p.m., they saw the fire engines on Rockland and took a back way to reach their home.
"My wife thought [the emergency vehicles were at] a neighbor's house," said Bridges. "But when we turned the corner onto Stonedale Lane and then onto Rockland, we realized it was our house — and all the windows were open."
Castillo said fireplace ashes had been placed inside a paper bag and left in the garage, next to the trash bin. The fire department advises people not to put fireplace ashes into either paper or cardboard containers. Instead, place them inside a metal container with a lid. Otherwise, embers could smolder for days.
Bridges, who felt both terrible and foolish about what happened, said he's been putting his fireplace ashes into a bag for the past 18 years. Then he spreads them onto his lawn for fertilizer.
"From now on, we'll do something else with the ashes," he said. "The rest of the house was fine. We were extremely lucky. And the fire department was terrific — the chief, Capt. Edith Eshleman, brought us two, new smoke detectors."
BRIDGES CALLED it "very fortunate for Ellena and her mother to be out selling cookies at the time. I decided to reward her by buying 20 boxes of cookies from her — quadruple our biggest order ever. Ellena, checking her records, said he ordered seven Trefoils, seven Samoas and six Thin Mints.
Soule teaches kindergarten at the Clifton Children's Academy and said Ellena learned fire-safety there, five years ago, from a visiting firefighter. "She's a wonderful, little girl, and it's nice to see that we teach children things and they remember them," said Bridges. "Then other kids get to see, 'Hey, it paid off.' It's a valuable lesson; I'm just sorry I had to be the example."
When not busy saving homes, Ellena enjoys drawing, playing on the computer and doing math. She hopes to sell 300 boxes of cookies by February.