- Associated Press - Saturday, February 19, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Strong winds, mild temperatures and extremely dry conditions turned the mid-Atlantic region into a tinderbox Saturday, contributing to dozens of wildfires, snarling traffic and even toppling the National Christmas Tree.

Maryland State Police shut down Interstate 95 in both directions in the Laurel area Saturday afternoon after a wildfire at a mulch plant jumped into the median of the highway.

Prince George’s County firefighters were battling that blaze and several others, prompting Fire Chief Marc Bashoor to call every firefighter in the county to active duty and open the county’s emergency operations center.

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.

The region was under a high-wind warning for much of the day. Sustained winds were measured at 25 to 30 mph, with gusts recorded at up to 55 mph, said Kevin Witt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

Temperatures were in the mid-50s, but the dew point was in the teens — an indication that the air was unusually dry, Witt said.

“Once we get these fires going, it’s really tough to combat these things with these strong, gusty winds and very low moisture in low levels of the atmosphere,” Witt said.

The region has received no significant rainfall for the past week. The strongest winds were expected to subside by 5 p.m., but wind warnings remained in effect until later Saturday, Witt said. More moisture was expected in the air Sunday, with a chance of showers Sunday evening into Monday morning, he said.

The fire at the Laurel mulch plant was one of the most troublesome. It started before noon and was still burning out of control at 6:45 p.m., Prince George’s fire officials said.

The facility included about 100 piles of mulch, each 30 feet tall and 100 yards long, and the wind caused the fire to jump from pile to pile, said Mark Brady, a county fire department spokesman. Eventually, burning materials crossed into the median of I-95, and Maryland State Police closed the highway in both directions at 2:20 p.m. The highway was closed for more than four hours.

Firefighters were making progress against the blaze and didn’t expect it to spread further, but it wasn’t likely to be extinguished until Sunday, Brady said.

Also in Prince George’s, a brush fire believed to have started at a farm damaged as many as 20 structures, including homes, sheds and barns, Brady said. Firefighters from northern Virginia were called in to assist because the county fire department was stretched so thin.

Earlier Saturday, fire destroyed a home shared by three University of Maryland students in College Park.

Brush fires in Prince William County, Va., resulted in temporary closures of I-95 — first the southbound lanes, then the northbound ones — because smoke impeded driver visibility, police said.

Another fire in Prince William covered 200 acres and forced authorities to evacuate residents from a several homes, police said.

In Washington, strong winds toppled the National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce that had stood on the Ellipse just south of the White House since 1978. The tree was mulched Saturday afternoon, and a replacement tree has been chosen and will be planted sometime in the spring, said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

“The bottom line is, trees don’t live forever,” Line said.

More than 40,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric customers in central Maryland lost power, The utility had turned the lights back on for more than 30,000 by 4 p.m. Thousands of Pepco customers in the D.C. area and Dominion Power customers in northern Virginia also lost power.

In Odenton, Md., which is near Fort Meade, more than 100 firefighters were battling a five-alarm brush fire so large that they were unable even to estimate its size.

“We can’t get a handle on how many acres have burned. It’s quite expansive,” said Capt. James Rostek, a fire department spokesman.

High winds posed other problems. Three dockworkers were rescued by firefighters after being swept into the Potomac River at Bolling Air Force Base in southeast Washington.

Large brush fires were also reported in Montgomery County, Md., and in the Baltimore area.

In the Baltimore area, some customers lost water service after the high winds knocked out power to water pumping stations, city public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said. The exact number of customers wasn’t immediately known. Other customers were urged to conserve water until power was restored.

Winds also knocked out power to thousands and closed some roads in Delaware, officials said.

In central Virginia, Rockingham County firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service spent much of Saturday battling a fire that had engulfed 300 acres of forest, The Daily News-Record reported

The Carolinas were also affected by the conditions. State Forestry Service spokesman Brian Haines told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that about 130 fires were being fought across the state Saturday.

Winds were expected to exacerbate a wildfire burning near Chimney Rock in the western part of the state that has already scorched 1,400 acres.

Warm, windy weather was expected to add to the intensity of a wildfire that’s been burning near Chimney Rock in western North Carolina since Feb. 12. More than 160 firefighters have been working to contain the blaze that has scorched more than 1,200 acres.

In South Carolina, State Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins told The Sun News of Myrtle Beach that firefighters had been called to 77 wildfires statewide.

Hawkins said many of the calls were for brush or yard fires. Debris burning causes about 40 percent of all wildfires in that state.



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