A house fire last week in Chantilly injured the homeowner and three firefighters and caused an estimated $500,000 damage. Fire investigators say the blaze was accidental, caused by an electrical spark that ignited gasoline under the deck.
"When I came out, there was lots of black smoke and, pretty soon, there were flames behind the house," said neighbor Barbara Rice. "The attic over the garage went up really fast, and the fire spread across the roof. There was a carbon monoxide buildup in the attic, and it exploded and knocked the firefighters off the second floor and down to the front door."
THE INCIDENT occurred last Tuesday, April 3, around 6:35 p.m., at 4909 Fox Creek Court, in the Big Rocky Forest community off Melville Lane. Some 50 firefighters and emergency personnel from stations in Chantilly, Fair Oaks, Centreville (Station 17) and Frying Pan responded and brought the blaze under control in about 45 minutes.
Next-door neighbor Tammy Gabriel, who's lived there with her family for eight months, alerted the homeowner about the fire and said the whole thing could have been much worse. Said Gabriel: "I feel very badly for our neighbors, but I'm glad I saw the fire when I did."
Her neighbor Mike had been outside, underneath the deck of his two-story home, working on his motorcycle, when the blaze erupted. At the same time, Gabriel's daughter was playing in a room that overlooks the neighbors' backyard.
"I went in to check on her and saw a fire in the grass between the two houses, and flames licking around the motorcycle on the ground," said Gabriel. "The dry leaves were on fire. My neighbor was working on the fuel line on his motorcycle and must have spilled fuel because his clothes caught on fire and he rolled in the grass."
But Gabriel said he was injured and didn't realize the grass was on fire. "He burned his arms and stomach and went inside to call 911 for an ambulance. I saw the flames and ran to his front door and told him, 'There's a fire!' But he was in shock because he didn't react; he just stood there."
So Gabriel ran back to her house and called 911. "They said, 'We already have a call for an ambulance,' and I said, 'No, we need a fire truck — there's a fire.' I didn't know then that he'd been burned."
By that time, she said, three minutes had passed since she'd first seen the fire and "there were huge flames under the deck. The motorcycle was completely on fire, and I was afraid it would explode."
"I was going to go back over there with a bucket of water but, by then, it had turned into a fireball and was too big to put out. I grabbed my daughter out of the house, and my son, my neighbors' son Joe and I went outside."
BEFORE THE firefighters arrived, said Gabriel, Mike was standing outside his home, trying to put out the fire with a garden hose. "There was billowing smoke coming out of the top of the garage; it was incredible," she said. "The fire people said the gas from the motorcycle made [the fire] go much faster. Within 10 minutes, the house was an inferno."
Neighbor Barbara Rice learned about the blaze from her son Joe, and Gabriel's son, who'd been playing together at the Gabriels'. "They told me there was a motorcycle on fire," said Rice. That's when she went outside and saw the blaze up the street.
A 13-year resident there, Rice said she was worried about the homes on both sides of the one on fire, in case it spread to them. She said it also reinforced to her that "families need to have a plan to get out of their house [in case of fire] and practice it."
"The speed with which it consumed the house had shocking implications for all of us," she continued. "It was fortunate no one else was hurt." (Neighbors said Mike's wife was away on business and came home afterward).
Joyce Baker, who lives across the street from the fire-ravaged home, said her children were outside playing at the time and she and her husband came out to check on them when "up comes a fire truck."
"We saw the flames and Mike, the owner, trying to get the flames, himself, with his water house until the fire department got here," continued Baker. "Then the paramedics got him and the helicopter came to [nearby] Poplar Tree Elementary and took him to the Washington Hospital Burn Center." (Neighbors said he sustained second- and third-degree burns).
Calling the fire "an amazing thing to see," Baker said, "It was astounding to see how quickly your home can be destroyed — going from a beautiful house to a matchbook. We're just relieved that everyone got out of there OK."
She and her family have lived in that normally quiet cul-de-sac seven years and are friends with Mike and his family — a wife and twin daughters who'll graduate from college this year. "They're very nice people," said Baker. "My kids liked to go over there and watch Mike tinker with his cars and garden."
She said all the public-safety personnel responding that day did a great job. "There were fire trucks, emergency vehicles and police," said Baker. "It's a wonderful system; everyone knew what to do and did it. It was very impressive."
As for the injured firefighters, one was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital and the other two were taken there by ambulance; all had non-life-threatening injuries. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Dan Schmidt said one of them spent the night in the hospital and is currently on injury leave, and the other two were treated and released.
TAMMY GABRIEL said she and others heard the boom of the carbon-monoxide explosion and then saw the three firefighters being put onto stretchers and taken away. "There were about 100 people watching the fire," she said. "They came from all over because of the huge cloud of smoke and all the firetrucks."
Stu Cooper, who's lived on that block since 1993, said he and his family were away then, but came home the next day and discovered what had happened. "We were floored; our hearts just fell," he said. "The entire roof is gone and just about the whole, second floor is devastated. And that whole section over the garage was just fried."
He said workmen were at the home afterward "putting up a makeshift roof structure." But before the most-heavily damaged parts of the house were covered with a blue, waterproof tarp, said Cooper, "It was shocking to see."
Also covered with a tarp is the left side of the Gabriels' home where heat from the flames next door melted their siding. "We were worried our house would go, too," said Tammy Gabriel. "We were afraid for quite awhile. The firefighters poured hundreds of gallons of water on our house to cool it down."
All in all, she said, "Our neighborhood is very thankful for the firefighters. And all the neighbors are buying fire ladders and batteries for our smoke alarms."