A five-alarm fire ripped through the under-construction South Alex development in Penn Daw on Saturday morning, gutting much of the site.
One firefighter and one civilian were treated for minor injuries at a local hospital after the blaze, which was called in around 9:40 a.m., according to Fairfax Fire and Rescue.
Early pictures from the scene showed parts of the five-story apartment complex, which has been under construction since late 2018, engulfed in flames. Eventually sections of the building began collapsing as the fire spread throughout the site, which is located at the corner of North Kings Highway and Poag Street (see map).
Small explosions could be heard in the fire, which sent flames high into the sky and created a tower of smoke that could be seen from miles away.
A row of under-construction townhomes at the rear of the development were burned to the ground, and another row of the recently completed Towns at South Alex townhomes suffered damage as well.
Ryan Barry, a resident of the townhomes, said he was thankful that the fire did not completely destroy his home, which he had only moved into two weeks ago.
“That was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen in my life,” Barry said as he watched firefighters hit hot spots in the rear of the South Alex property.
More than 140 firefighters responded to the scene from jurisdictions all around the D.C. area. Shifting winds made containing the fire a challenge, and burning debris and the heat of the flames presented a threat to the townhomes and two adjacent apartment complexes. Firefighters positioned themselves all around the South Alex site — including on the roofs of nearby buildings — in a successful effort to keep the fire from spreading beyond the property.
However the heat from the fire was so intense that it broke windows and melted pieces of the facade of the Kings Gardens Apartments on North Kings Highway. Residents were evacuated from the large garden apartment complex, as well as from the Shelby Apartments at the other corner of Poag Street and North Kings Highway.
Power was cut to both Kings Gardens and The Shelby, and as of early afternoon residents were not being allowed back into the buildings. Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said that the county would be working with the Red Cross to help any residents who may be temporarily displaced. Some residents from The Shelby were offered assistance and shelter at The Parker apartments on Huntington Avenue.
The fire was contained by around 1:30 p.m., according to Fairfax Fire and Rescue spokeswoman Ashley Hildebrandt. Units were expected to be on the scene all day, she said.
South Alex was to have 400 apartments and 44,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. The 41-unit townhome complex, called the Towns at South Alex, was also part of the development. A number of residents have already moved into those townhouses, although the row that burned down was not finished yet.
It is not clear if workers were at the construction site when the fire started. However a number of workers were seen watching the blaze from the street.
The response to the fire necessitated the complete closure of Richmond Highway in the Penn Daw area, as well as sections of North Kings Highway and South Kings Highway. Richmond Highway reopened around 5 p.m.
Lusk said he had not heard anything about what caused the fire, and Hildebrandt said investigators will probably need days before any determinations are made.
South Alex is owned by Combined Properties. The development sits on the site of the former Penn Daw Shopping Center, which was closed and demolished in 2016. An Aldi grocery store is planned as the anchor retailer of South Alex.