No cause yet on South Alex blaze; scope of damage comes into focus

Firetrucks in front of South Alex site, one spraying water onto the rubble
Volunteer firefighters from Dunn Loring and Springfield work the scene at South Alex on Sunday afternoon.

The massive fire that ripped through the under-construction South Alex development destroyed five buildings that were under construction as part of the project, as well as 14 unoccupied townhomes bordering the rear of the property, the Fairfax Fire & Rescue Department said Sunday.

While the exact cause and origin of the fire has yet to be determined, a worker first noticed it in a trash chute. The worker called 911 and tried to extinguish the blaze, but could not and was forced to evacuate, the fire department said.

The first 911 call came in around 9:40 a.m., and by the time firefighters arrived, the fire was “fully involved,” Fairfax Fire and Rescue Chief John Butler said. It continued to grow for some time, sending flames high into the sky and creating so much smoke that it could be seen on radar.

“This is the largest fire I’ve ever seen,” said Butler, who said the events of Saturday are still sinking in. “It’s hitting me now what we did yesterday. I’m starting to digest what we saw.”

Two firefighters suffered minor burn injuries and were treated and released at local hospitals, Butler said. A civilian also suffered minor injuries.

Butler said it took more than two hours to get the fire contained and even longer to get it fully under control. He praised the efforts of the firefighters on the ground for maintaining their poise against the inferno and said their actions, as well as some fortunate wind shifts, kept the blaze from spreading to neighboring buildings and houses, including the Shelby Apartments directly across the street.

“They stayed disciplined and professional. [They] didn’t get overwhelmed.” said Butler, who was assigned by incident commander Deputy Chief Andrew Duke to supervise efforts to battle the blaze on the Poag Street side of the property. “There were times that I was reasonably sure we were going to lose the Shelby and some other single family homes.”

While the fire did not make it across Poag Street, the intense heat from the blaze damaged the exterior of the Shelby, as well as 14 recently completed — and occupied — townhomes in the rear of the property. It also damaged multiple buildings in the Kings Gardens Apartments, which are next door to South Alex on South Kings Highway, as well as four single-family homes on Poag Street and 28 vehicles.

The southern face of the Shelby Apartments, with damaged windows, screens and molding from the sheer heat of the fire. Note the burned utility pole in the foreground.

Siding on the single-family homes was seen warped on Sunday from the heat of the fire, with even a mailbox and a car cover badly damaged by the temperature alone. Utility poles on Poag Street were scorched, while windows in the Kings Gardens Apartments were boarded up.

As of Sunday afternoon many residents had not been able return to their homes, and the Red Cross, the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management and building management had been working to help those displaced.

At this point the value of the all of the property destroyed or damaged has not been determined.

The remains of an entire row of townhomes that burned during Saturday’s fire.

Team effort

Four alarms were called in for the South Alex fire, bringing more than 140 firefighters from the City of Alexandria, Fort Belvoir, Arlington, and Prince George’s County, among other localities.

Butler said these “mutual aid” relationships with other jurisdictions are crucial to maintaining high quality fire and rescue responses around Northern Virginia.

Butler also credited Dominion Energy for responding quickly and cutting power in the area, as well as the 911 operators who handled the high volume of calls that came in throughout the morning. Even the FAA was contacted to ensure nearby flights were aware of the fire.

“This success story would not have been possible with just one jurisdiction,” Butler said. “We have a good thing in Northern Virginia with neighbors helping neighbors.”

Developer will rebuild

South Alex had been under construction since late 2018 and was scheduled to finish in 2021. The mixed-use project was the boldest redevelopment project along Richmond Highway as of yet, replacing an old shopping center in the Penn Daw area with more than 400 apartments and 44,000 square feet of ground-level retail anchored by an Aldi.

WTOP reported Saturday that South Alex’s owner intends to move forward with the project.

“We have long been a part of this community and are deeply committed to rebuilding and fulfilling our commitment to this neighborhood,” Sri Velamati, president and CEO of Combined Properties said in a press release, according to WTOP. “We are extremely grateful for the firefighters, police and other first responders who have been battling this blaze, and we are cooperating with officials as they try to determine the cause.”

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