Four-alarm fire destroys construction site near Route 1

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The thick, black plume of smoke from a four-alarm fire south of the beltway was visible for miles on Saturday. The fire destroyed a new mixed-use development called South Alex near the intersection of Route 1 and Kings Highway. Read the full story on page 4. (Photo/Claudia Hosky)
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By Luke Anderson | [email protected]

A plume of black smoke billowed above Alexandria on Saturday due to a four-alarm structure fire about a mile south of the beltway. The column of smoke was visible from miles away and was picked up on weather radar.

Shortly before 10 a.m., Fairfax County firefighters were called to the 2800 block of Poag Street, near the intersection of Route 1 and Kings Highway in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County, where a five-story mixed-use building still under construction was engulfed in flames. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue tweeted at 2:07 p.m. that the fire was contained.

The smoke plume as seen from Alexandria. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

Four neighboring fire departments, including Alexandria Fire Department, provided assistance as the fire spread to surrounding buildings, including a row of townhomes that were also under construction. Police closed portions of Route 1 and Kings Highway, redirecting traffic for several hours until the fire was contained.

Two firefighters and one civilian were taken to the hospital to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries, Fairfax County Fire Chief John Butler said at a press conference on Sunday. One of the firefighters belonged to AFD and has since been discharged from the hospital, AFD spokesperson Raytevia Evans said.

The site was home to the former Penn Daw Plaza, which was demolished in 2016. Construction on South Alex, a new $135 million, 502,000-square-foot mixed-use development, began in December 2018, with completion expected by 2021, according to Combined Properties, the building’s developer. The development was intended to include 400 residential units, retail space and a 20,000-square-foot Aldi grocery store.

The remains of the South Alex development after the fire was put out. (Photo/Marty Devine)

The cause and origin of the fire are still under investigation; however, a construction worker on the site witnessed fire in a trash chute, Butler said. Sprinkler systems inside the building were inactive, as is common for buildings under construction, Butler said. Wind conditions and the fact that the structure was built primarily of wood made it easier for the fire to spread.

“Light-weight wood-frame structures like this pose a high risk, you know, with regards to building construction,” Butler said. “Fire protection systems should be a mandate – sprinklers and permitting with regards to building construction.”

Several people reported flaming debris falling from the sky during the fire. One nearby resident tweeted a photograph of charred debris that had landed on her front porch. An ABC 7 news reporter tweeted a photo of a piece of burning debris that had fallen on the hood of his colleague’s jacket.

The plume of smoke blocks the sun above the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

Dominion Energy shut off power for approximately 800 customers in the area, WTOP reported. The tremendous heat from the fire melted away the siding on nearby apartment buildings and cars and caused windows to break. Damage to surrounding apartments has displaced several families.

“We are devastated by the massive fire that has destroyed our South Alex property and threatened nearby homes and buildings,” Sri Velamati, president and chief executive officer of Combined Properties Inc., said in a statement on Saturday.

The only parts of the building that remain now are two singed cinder block stairwells. Velamati said that Combined Properties is “deeply committed to rebuilding and fulfilling our commitment to this neighborhood.” Due to the circumstances, it is unlikely the development will be completed in 2021.

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