Transformer Explosion Cuts Power and Closes Roads

March 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
March 9, 2016

A truck attempting to park on Ellison Street hit a support wire for an electrical transformer Tuesday afternoon, causing a chain reaction that cut power to nearly 50 homes and businesses for an extended period.

The power outage briefly shut down the traffic light at Broad and West streets, and forced the closure of Ellison and Patterson streets as crews from Dominion Power brought in multiple equipment trucks to replace or repair the damaged transformers.

The episode began around 2:30 pm Tuesday. When the truck hit the support wire, which was secured into the concrete sidewalk, the transformer it was holding exploded with a thundering noise, and the top several feet of it broke off but did not fall. That may have been fortunate, because an electrical repair worker told the Times that it contains 20,000 volts, a very dangerous amount of power.

However, the toppling of that transformer damaged several others on the street, and the one at the corner of Ellison and West streets rained pieces of wood on a car that was driving by. The driver was not injured.

Police quickly cordoned off the streets and City crews reactivated the Broad and West intersection with a generator. Dominion crews came and replaced the one broken transformer with a brand new pole, cut off the broken top of the other one, and placed new fiberglass arms on the tops of at least two others.

The top of the damaged pole, left, has been cut away, and the new pole, right has been installed.

The top of the damaged pole, left, has been cut away, and the new pole, right has been installed.

Power was restored at about 11:45 pm. It’s not clear if the truck driver who damaged the transformer will face any charges or damage claims.

Bomb Threat Called into Mason High School (Update: All Clear)

March 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
March 4, 2016

A bomb threat was called into George Mason High School Friday morning, causing authorities to evacuate the school and investigate with police and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Students and staff were safely moved to the nearby Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School gymnasium within minutes after the threat was called in. Officials say the threat was an automated phone call, and that identical such calls also were sent to several other area high schools, including McLean, Fairfax’s Falls Church High School, Herndon High, Stone Bridge, and Potomac High.

The unlikelihood of all those schools having a bomb made it more likely that the threat was a hoax, but officials couldn’t be sure, so they moved everyone out of the school as a precaution. Mason students were served lunch at Henderson, and they apparently were still at the middle school as this story was being written.

Officials asked parents not to come pick up their children, because the entire campus was closed while police, with the help of Arlington-based K-9 units, investigated. Classes for Henderson students are continuing as scheduled. No threats were called in there.

Afternoon bus service from Jessie Thackrey Preschool, which is not nearby, are being delayed because most of the buses are stuck in the currently-closed lot on the Mason-Henderson campus.

Update, March 4, 5:28 pm: Police issued an all clear at approximately 2:30 pm, and students were released from the Henderson gym back to Mason. Dismissal from the high school was held at the normal time.

Traffic Signal Work to Affect Traffic at 2 Intersections

February 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

February 21, 2016

City traffic signals will be getting upgrades over the next two weeks, and City officials caution that there will be traffic disruptions as a result.

Public Works staff will be replacing the “cabinets” which house the electrical brains for the traffic signals at Park Ave. and N. Washington St. and at Annandale Rd. and W. Broad St. For both locations, work and the resulting traffic impacts are expected to take place during working hours and not at rush hour.

The Park Ave. and N. Washington St. signal will be dark during working hours on February 22 and should be completed within the day. Left turns from Park Ave will be temporarily prohibited and the left turn lane will be closed. Power to the signal will be turned off, so N. Washington St. traffic will be uncontrolled. Park Ave. right turns on to southbound Washington will have a temporary stop sign. The existing cabinet at this intersection has faulty wiring and has overheated in the past.

Work along W. Broad St. is scheduled to begin the week of February 29 and should take three to five days to complete. This signal will be dark for a few hours while a temporary cabinet is installed, and the Annandale Rd. entrance to the Broaddale Center will be closed. Left turns will be prohibited from Annandale Rd. Traffic along W. Broad St. will be uncontrolled, and a temporary stop sign will be installed for Annandale Rd.

The existing cabinet at this intersection was damaged in a car accident a few years ago and the foundation is set too low; this signal currently goes into flash mode during every rain or snow because water seeps into the cabinet. The foundation will be raised before the new cabinet is installed.

The Snow Shoveling Story Remains the Same

February 10, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
February 10, 2016

It’s been a constant battle over the years to get City businesses to clear their sidewalks of snow as required by City ordinance. And problems on that front cropped up again following last month’s historic blizzard.

Many businesses, even some small, understaffed businesses, did good work getting through the prodigious amounts of white stuff that fell, thereby helping City residents and visitors return to their normal life routines, but others did little or nothing, despite having repeatedly been told over the years what their responsibilities are.

And even more odd, some of the worst offenders were the deep pocketed national chains, which surely can afford to hire contractors to handle the task.

Rite Aid, for example, didn’t even touch its West or Ellison street sidewalks. West was covered with a huge amount of snow that had been plowed on to it, but that just makes the task more urgent, since it truly was impassable. In previous years, Rite Aid’s store managers have been informed about the requirements.

West End Shopping Center was slow to even touch its Broad Street sidewalk, and was even slower to address the Ellison Street sidewalk at their property’s rear. Six days after the snow ended, they did half of it. They only completed it after City officials reminded them of the need following the reopening of the City’s schools. The same is true for Rite Aid: they didn’t act on their West Street or Ellison sidewalks until the City nudged them.

It’s not known if the City issued a ticket or just gave them a gentle reminder.

The vacant cabinet store at the corner of Broad & West addressed neither Broad nor West, and while that’s understandable to a degree, since no one is there, it doesn’t remove their legal responsibilities nor the ethics of the situation. They too, got it handled after the City came calling.

But perhaps the worst offender is national chain Taco Bell, which is owned by the huge Yum! Brands company. More than two weeks after the snow stopped falling, they had yet to finish clearing their West Street sidewalk on Feb. 10. And it’s not just a couple of inches that remain. The sidewalk remains impassable and pedestrians continue to walk in busy West Street as a result.

The store manager at Taco Bell said he didn’t know why the sidewalk hadn’t been cleared. He said he would call their contractor back.

The Little City May Be Home to a Little Different Climate

By William Henneberg
Special to the Falls Church Times
February 6, 2016

Falls Church City is small, a virtual micro-city compared to the neighboring large counties. But within its narrow confines, our micro-city also may house a small and somewhat rare weather feature known as a “microclimate.”

The National Weather Service defines a “microclimate” as “the climate of a small area…that may be different from that in the general region.” In other words, a microclimate is present when weather patterns exist that are unique to a given area.

The most well-known microclimate type is the “urban microclimate,” which is caused by pavement, buildings, and dense development, and leads to what is known as the “urban heat island effect.” In the Washington area, this explains why the weather station at Reagan National Airport consistently reports warmer observations than the more vegetated suburbs only a few miles away (particularly at night). In Falls Church, too, the climate of the more urbanized areas (warmer) differs from that of the green spaces (cooler) and that is where this analysis begins: the downtown corridor.

There is no historical temperature record for downtown Falls Church, but evidence for a warmer downtown climate came two summers ago when a thunderstorm popped up over the city. When an area is warmer than its surroundings, the hot air rises and, if the rising parcel of air can sustain itself (with enough moisture present), a “heat island thunderstorm” can develop. This seems to have been the case on August 2nd, 2014, as a storm initiated over the most urban (and likely warmest) part of Falls Church, the intersection of Broad and Washington streets.

radar time sequence with outline
Radar time sequence of a thunderstorm over Falls Church City, August 2, 2014.

This makes the case for an urban microclimate over the downtown area. But microclimates are not limited to anthropogenic (human) causes. Small elevation changes, which are common throughout the Virginia Piedmont, of which Falls Church is a part, also can influence precipitation and temperature patterns. And there is some temperature data that supports this idea. But first we must take a look at the topography of Falls Church.

The general topography of Northern Virginia is higher elevation to the west (Appalachians and Blue Ridge), sloping downward to the southeast to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean (below, left). Falls Church lies more or less on the “fall line” — where the hilly Piedmont region transitions to the flat Coastal Plain. Far western areas of Falls Church tend to be higher than central and eastern areas (the elevation of Fort Taylor Park, the Koons Ford car dealership, and the Eden Center in East Falls Church is higher but is a small blip compared to the overall downward slope). This helps explain why the August 2nd storm propagated to the west, as the slight upslope tendency may have encouraged continued development towards the northwest (and most of East Falls Church never saw a drop of rain).

Northern VA FC topo (1)

Topography of Northern Virginia and Falls Church. Note the elevation decrease from northwest to southeast. Red dots on the Falls Church image indicate the location of two weather stations. The East Falls Church station is at 317 feet while the West Falls Church station is at 387 feet.

During the August 2nd event, western Falls Church would have ended up much cooler than the east due to the storms, and not necessarily because of a microclimate, making the analysis tricky. But can small elevation changes alone influence the temperature, independent of rain?

Shenandoah National Park, 65 miles away, is filled with examples of natural, topographically induced microclimates. A 2007 climate summary identified temperature changes between even small hills and valleys in the park. On clear, calm nights, cold and denser air flows to lower elevations in the valleys. This “cold air pooling” can shorten the growing season for lower elevations (and explains why Thomas Jefferson was able to grow artichokes at Monticello, on top of a hill).

At other times, however, adiabatic cooling (decreasing temperatures with increasing elevation) dominates, and higher elevations are cooler than the surrounding valleys. In other words, pressure and temperature are proportional — so the higher surface pressure at lower elevations increases temperatures. That is known as “compressional warming.”

Here in Falls Church, data from two privately-owned weather stations reproduce these natural microclimate phenomena at a smaller scale. The table below shows monthly data from a station in far western Falls Church (elevation of 387 feet) and one in East Falls Church (elevation of 317 feet). Note that during the winter and summer months (January and July), the East Falls Church station (EFC) is warmer.

During these months, prevailing westerly winds dominate, the air is well-mixed and adiabatic cooling/compressional warming keep the higher elevations cooler and the lower elevations warmer. During the “transition seasons” of fall (October) and spring (March), however, the wind direction is much more variable and the westerlies do not always dominate. The compressional warming is limited and instead, the colder, denser air masses can find their way to lower elevations in the middle and eastern parts of the city, similar to the “cold pooling” that occurs in the Shenandoah Valley. Higher elevations of West Falls Church can actually be warmer than lower elevations.

Temp Table
Temperature data from two station sites depicted as AvgTemp./Monthly High/Monthly Low (°F). Red text indicates the warmer station and * denotes incomplete data.

With no official threshold, there is no set standard for how “different” the climate must be from the surrounding region to constitute a true microclimate. In the situations mentioned here, it ranges from a few tenths of a degree to several degrees on any given day (keeping in mind the data is too sparse spatially and temporally to make a statistical significance analysis).

Nonetheless, there appear to be three microclimates within the Little City: the downtown corridor, which is likely the warmest spot year round; the lower elevations in central and east Falls Church, which seem to be distinct from the higher elevations in west Falls Church (and Mount Taylor in East Falls Church) depending on the prevailing wind conditions (below).

Interestingly enough, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail goes through all three areas, so, the next time you’re riding, running, or walking through the City, you may just be able to notice a little bit of each.

FC microclimates
Microclimates of Falls Church. Blue – the higher elevations of Falls Church, Black – lower elevations of central and eastern Falls Church, Red – downtown urban corridor.

William Henneberg is a lifelong resident of Falls Church City. He holds a Master’s degree in Meteorology from Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H. He currently works as an operational meteorologist for Commodity Weather Group, LLC, in Bethesda.

West Street 7-11 Hit By Robbers

January 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

January 28, 2016

Falls Church City Police are seeking information about two men who entered the 7-11 convenience store late on Jan. 27 and robbed the business while restraining an employee.

Two suspects, described as black males, entered the store about 11:24 pm, held an employee, and took money, although no weapon was used other than physical strength. They left on foot on West Street and headed towards West Broad Street. No injuries were sustained by the victims.

The suspects were wearing dark jackets with hoods pulled over their faces, dark pants, and gloves. Photos were not initially available, but are now, and can be seen on the City’s web site. The only photo showing both assailants can be seen at this link:

Police do not believe this is connected to recent business robberies in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Anyone with information is asked to call police at 703-248-5053.

City, Schools Ask For Sidewalk Help, Patience, and Courtesy

January 27, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

January 27, 2016

The City of Falls Church continues recovery efforts from the historic blizzard. Many more days of hard work are ahead for Public Works, neighbors and businesses. Compassion, courtesy and understanding are key while the community strives for normalcy. Updates will continue to be made to the City’s website,, Facebook (CityOfFallsChurchGov) and Twitter (FallsChurchGov).

Neighborhood Sidewalks
Neighbors are organizing to clear sidewalks and school bus stops. The City’s website has a list of tips and things to consider for neighborhood snow removal, Snow should be shoveled into yards, not roads or sidewalks. Keeping fire hydrants and storm drains clear are also important for emergency personnel and drainage.

Commercial Sidewalks
Businesses are faced with the same challenges as the neighborhoods: mass amounts of snow in a small space. The City government is working to clear sidewalks at public buildings (like the library) and parks. We anticipate completing that by the end of the day on Friday. At that time, we expect businesses to have completed their sidewalk clearing as well, if not before then. In the meantime, complaints about uncleared commercial sidewalks can be sent to Police will work with the businesses while balancing an understanding of the challenges of recovery with the overall safety of the community.

Freezing is expected on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and beyond. Businesses are encouraged to safely check roof scuppers and drains to make sure they are not blocked.

City Public Works Crews
Every street should have at least one lane plowed. Public Works crews are now concentrating on assessing school bus routes with the schools, clearing intersections, and hauling snow.

Trash and Recycling Collection
Trash and recycling are being collected today. Missed collections will be picked up Wednesday, February 3. At this point, the City government expects to resume normal operating hours for the remainder of the week, including the Library and Community Center.

Cautious, Courteous Drivers and Pedestrians Needed
Large snow piles at intersections, one-lane residential streets, and snow sloughing from the right-of-way into streets create challenges and frustration for drivers and pedestrians. Caution and courtesy are crucial at this time–we are all in this together. Community members should add time for longer commutes.

City Issues Updates on Snow Situation

January 24, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

January 24, 2016

The snow has stopped, but crews continue to work around the clock to clear roads. The City asks for patience from the community as we work together to get back to normal.

Plowing Update

The City’s Public Works crews continue to clear Snow Emergency Routes as first priority. They have plowed one lane on most residential streets and will be working through at least Monday to clear more. Crews communicate and work with emergency responders in case of calls to residential streets.

We ask the community to be patient as crews manage this historic blizzard. The crews face several challenges, including disposing of mass amounts of snow and avoiding vehicles and pedestrians. You can help by staying off the roads.

Snow Emergency Still in Effect: Stay off the Roads

Although the snow has stopped, we are still in an emergency mode. The Snow Emergency Routes must remain open for emergency vehicles, so parking is still restricted on those roads. Visit for the list of streets.

It also is critical that people continue to stay home and neither drive nor walk in the middle of streets. We understand that community members are anxious to get life back to normal, but crews and emergency personnel are still working around the clock, responding to urgent issues. Please stay off the roads.

Community Center Open Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you are able to safely walk to the Community Center (223 Little Falls St.), it will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The gym will be open for free play and the Teen Center will be open for drop-in fun.

If you walk, please be safe and smart. If you see a plow or other vehicle coming, please get out of the way immediately–don’t wait for them to get closer. Pedestrians in the street create a dangerous situation for plows and emergency personnel.

Shoveling Tips and Safety

Shovel Left, Pile Right: As plows push snow past your driveway, they may undo the hard work you put into digging out. When you shovel snow, pile it to the right of your driveway (as you face the street) into your yard. Also try to clear a space to the left of your driveway so the plows won’t push snow back in front of your driveway. The City’s website has a graphic and video to illustrate these techniques.

Clear Fire Hydrants
Please clear the fire hydrant on your street. This small gesture can save lives in the event of an emergency.

Know the Risks

Please be careful while shoveling this large amount of snow. The American Heart Association recommends avoiding heavy meals and alcohol before shoveling; lifting small amounts at a time; giving yourself plenty of breaks; and knowing the signs of a heart attack. Visit the City’s website for more information.

« Previous PageNext Page »