- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

A construction crew painting the exterior of the East Wing of the White House ignited a small fire yesterday morning, slightly damaging an outdoor shutter, White House officials said.

Paint debris from an exterior shutter caught fire about 8:50 a.m. as workers were using a torch to burn off old paint, White House spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said yesterday afternoon.

The material smoldered, but no flames erupted, Ms. Chitre said. "It was a very minor incident," she said. "It caused very minimal damage."

The East Wing was undergoing "routine" painting when the shutter caught fire, Ms. Chitre said.

Three D.C. Fire Department trucks responded to the White House and extinguished the fire in five minutes, a D.C. fire official said.

D.C. firefighters have put out several White House fires over the years, including back-to-back fires in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president.

The fires broke out two days in a row in the building's mess ventilator in the basement in the West Wing. No one was injured and no damage was reported.

Despite problems in the past when it took firetrucks up to 15 minutes to get in through the gates fire officials said their crews had no "trouble getting in" yesterday.

The fire did not spread to any other part of the 200-year-old historic landmark and no one was injured, Ms. Chitre said.

The first family was not at home at the time of the fire, Ms. Chitre said.

President Clinton and daughter Chelsea were in Camp David, Md., for the Mideast peace talks. "The president was in meetings all morning, so we don't know if he called in to make sure everything was all right," Ms. Chitre said.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was at the family home in Chappaqua, N.Y., yesterday, according to the Office of the First Lady.

There was no estimate of damage, but Ms. Chitre said workers were able to resume work almost immediately.

The East Wing houses the first family's living quarters. It also contains several public areas such as the ornate East Room, where White House press conferences often are held, and the display room, which features two centuries of White House china.

About 1.2 million people visit the White House each year.

The White House has not undergone a major renovation since 1951, when President Harry S. Truman ordered its interior gutted and refitted.

Apart from the deliberate torching of the White House by the British during the War of 1812, at least one fire came close to burning down the mansion.

On Christmas Eve in 1929, the West Wing of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. residence, which houses the Oval Office, was gutted by fire. President Herbert Hoover was called away from dinner to supervise the removal of papers from the Oval Office while the fire raged.

President Hoover watched the blaze from a nearby rooftop and later moved his office to the Lincoln Bedroom, then to what is now called the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

In 1985, a small fire broke out in the East Wing, where first lady Nancy Reagan had her offices. The blaze was confined to the window area near the family theater.

In 1990, when George Bush was president, construction crews using a propane torch to remove paint from a building's outside window touched off a small fire next to the Oval Office. No one was injured and damage was minimal.

Four years later, in 1994, a small fire erupted after wires to a ceiling light fixture on the second floor had short-circuited.

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