Smoking materials caused South Alex fire, damage estimated at $48 million

Wreckage and debris seen on cloudy day
The South Alex site is seen on Thursday morning.

Discarded smoking materials tossed in a trash chute caused Saturday’s four-alarm fire at the under-construction South Alex development, the fire department announced Thursday.

The fire began in a chute on the second floor and was accidental, according to fire investigators. Total damage from the blaze is estimated to be around $48.2 million.

The fire destroyed all of the South Alex buildings, which were to be part of a mixed-used development consisting of 400 apartments and 44,000 square feet of ground-level retail anchored by an Aldi grocery store. The fire also destroyed 14 under-construction townhouses that were part of the Towns at South Alex community.

Additionally, the blaze damaged multiple garden apartment buildings in the Kings Gardens Apartments complex, along with the Shelby apartments, 29 vehicles, four single-family homes on Poag Street and the Zips Dry Cleaners.

An early image of the fire from South Kings Highway, before the collapse of the structure. (Image courtesy of Dan Lagana)
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The fire broke out sometime before 9:40 a.m. Fairfax Fire and Rescue had previously reported that a construction worker at the site discovered the blaze in a trash chute and tried to extinguish, but was unsuccessful. The worker called 911 and escaped to safety.

The massive fire is among the biggest ever seen in Northern Virginia, with smoke visible for miles — and even on radar. Flames fueled by the wood-framed structures shot up in the sky, and sections of the buildings collapsed through the morning before the fire was contained around 1 p.m.

Combined Properties, the owners of the South Alex property, issued a statement over the weekend saying they would move forward with the project. Local elected officials said earlier this week they would work with Combined and Craftmark Homes — owners of the Towns at South Alex townhome community — to ensure cleanup and permitting for the new project moved in as quick a manner as possible.

Amazingly, the Zips Dry Cleaners located at the corner of Poag Street and North Kings Highway somehow survived the fire with damaged described as “minor” by the store’s management. Zips remained without power as of Tuesday, and customers items were going to be sent to a restoration specialist to try and remove the smoke smell, according to an email from management to customers. An exact reopening day is unknown.

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