ASK THE TIMES: Mystery of Whittier Park Townhouse Fire

A reader writes:

I was shocked when a Whittier Park townhouse burned down last December. Since then I’ve heard two rumors about the cause: Too much lint in the clothes dryer vent, and electric wiring alterations not done to code. I also read originally that the cause might have been burning candles. This was ultra-modern construction, presumably with all the latest safety devices.  Yet despite being only minutes from multiple fire stations, it was a total loss.  Please, could somebody give us a full report, hopefully that would reassure us that this was a fluke, and if not a fluke, at least let us know if we need to clean our dryer vents?

This question opened up the most complicated subject yet in the “Ask the Times” series.

First, some Internet research revealed a chilling 6-minute YouTube video of the December 7, 2008, fire which destroyed the townhouse built in 1998 at 124 Rolling Terrace in the Whittier Park development on Hillwood Avenue. You can watch it here:

An Internet site,, also contains firemen’s blow-by-blow report:

At 1234 hours communications dispatched units to 124 Rolling Terrace, in the City of Falls Church, for a structure fire. Truck 106 arrived first on the scene to find a garage unit three-story above grade, middle-of-the-row townhouse of lightweight construction with heavy fire showing from the front door on the first floor.

Heavy smoke was pushing from the second and third floors. Truck 106’s officer met with the occupant that advised everyone was evacuated and accounted for and that there was ammunition in the garage that was detonating.

Shortly after their initial report, Truck 106 advised that the interior stairs had collapsed and requested a second alarm. Fire was now through the roof and the operation was declared defensive. Five minutes after the arrival of the first units the entire third floor collapsed to the second floor.

Numerous exterior handlines, a RAM monitor and the ladder pipes from Truck 106 and 410 were used to bring the fire under control. Units were immediately deployed into the B and D exposures and aggressively opened up to check for fire extension. The fire separation walls between the units performed very well resulting in only minor fire extension.

The blaze was brought under control within 30 minutes. Crews utilized ground ladders and handlines to extinguish remaining hot-spots. Battalion 112 (Blankenship) had the command. The only injuries were sustained by the occupant of the home.

Units on the call: Engines 428, 108, 102, 103; Trucks 106, 410; Rescue 104; Medic 106; Battalions 112, 111; EMS 112; Safety 114; 2nd alarm Engines 410, 413, 101; Tower 104; Light and Air Unit; Command Unit.

So what was the cause? With so many emergency units involved, we asked the City’s Communications Director, Barbara Gordon, for help. She tracked down Mike Woodson at the Arlington Fire Department Fire Prevention Office, who stated the official cause of the fire was “accidental.”

Well, we knew that. Or did we? It turns out that a number of Whittier Park neighbors had their doubts, because the fire spread so quickly. We asked for a fuller explanation and Woodson provided the following:

I believe a pet knocked a candle over onto the bed in a first floor bedroom. Why the fire spread so quickly is fairly simple to explain:

— Wind gusts were very high that day;

 -Lightweight wood construction;

 — A bed/mattress is extremely flammable under the right conditions (foams, plastics, wood, etc.);

 — Doors were left open when the occupant fled the home, allowing the wind to push the fire throughout the home.

An account of the fire in the Falls Church News-Press last December quoted City officials as saying that eight pets living in the house had not been found. But a neighbor told us that the townhouse owners actually had only six pets – four dogs and two cats – and that only two of the pets perished.

Both adjoining units remain empty 6 months later.

Both adjoining units remain empty 6 months later.

Six months later, all that 124 Rolling Terrace has to show is a concrete slab. The walls of the adjoining townhouses have been repaired and weatherproofed, but the units remain unoccupied. A workman at one of the houses said it suffered extensive water damage such that all the Sheetrock on the walls and ceilings has been removed.

When will the destroyed house be rebuilt? We never got an answer, but we did learn of some extenuating circumstances: 124 Rolling Terrace is one of six affordable dwelling units (ADUs) in Whittier Park. Unlike rental ADUs, the Whittier Park units were the first in the City to be owned by persons meeting the City’s maximum income criteria. Under the terms of the covenant attached to the deed, 124 Rolling Terrace can only be sold to someone with an income no higher than the City-specified maximum.

Yet another rumor we heard from a neighbor was that the property had been in foreclosure at the time of the fire, and that the City had since taken over the title. True? A call to the City’s ADU office brought the answer that this was a “legal question” to be referred to the City Attorney. That certainly sounded as if the City might be involved, but subsequently we were told that “the City does not own the property and does not have control over what happens to it. It is up to the owner, possibly a mortgage company, and there may be homeowner association rules.”

So, we’ve quelled some rumors but remain in the dark about when 124 Rolling Terrace will be rebuilt. Knowledgeable persons are invited to comment below, but please — no more rumors!

Previous ASK THE TIMES questions:
Can My 50-Year-Old House Go GREEN?
What’s Being Done About All the Graffiti?
Pay Property Tax with a Credit Card?
Why Are Purple Bows Tied to Trees?
Why Not Use the Old Red Light Cameras?
Rolling Carts for Heavy Recycling Loads?
Status of Hilton Garden Inn?
Questions about Northgate

June 11, 2009 


2 Responses to “ASK THE TIMES: Mystery of Whittier Park Townhouse Fire”

  1. Andy Rankin on June 11th, 2009 9:44 am

    This line seemed odd to me: “It is up to the owner, possibly a mortgage company.” Shouldn’t it be fairly easy to determine who the owner is? Who is paying taxes on the property?

    That end unit looks odd sitting out there on its own.

  2. Christina Fenwick, Falls Church, VA on March 27th, 2011 2:46 pm

    There were five dogs living in the townhouse. Only two dogs survived the fire, one of those two died two weeks later from fire-related injuries. There were five cats living in the townhouse, none of them survived. I am a reliable source, I know all of the pets’ names by heart. I wish the neighbor who claimed that only 2 pets perished was correct. Eight pets perished in the house fire.
    It remains a mystery as to how the house burned so fast, I guess. The statements and reports in this article still neglect to explain anything new.

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