By Meredith Somers
The Washington Times
WASHINGTON — Prince George's County fire officials are blaming the drop in temperatures for a series of fires that forced several families from their homes and critically burned one man over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Between Saturday and Sunday evening, county firefighters responded to six separate emergencies - all involving fires or faulty heating equipment. On Sunday alone, three fires were reported before 12:30 p.m., one them reported to county Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor as he handled news media questions while standing in front of a charred duplex in Chillum.
"There is a common thread of everybody trying to stay warm," Chief Bashoor said. "It's been a busy morning. It's pretty tragic on Thanksgiving weekend we're dealing with this."
A National Weather Service spokesman said temperatures last week for the Baltimore-Washington area dipped into the low 30s at night.
The Chillum fire was reported about 10:30 a.m., Chief Bashoor said, when neighbors saw smoke coming from the modest one-story home in the 2500 block of Van Buren Street. Investigators found a malfunctioning heat pump mounted outside the home, close to where the fire began.
By 1 p.m., the multiple fire departments that had responded to the scene were packing up their gear. Some passers-by stopped to look at the home, which had its two front bay windows blown out. Blackened furniture and other belongings could be seen through the broken glass. One corner of the roof had a gaping hole in it where both the fire burned and firefighters had cut through toventilate the fire so it would not spread further across the attic.
Bundled in pajamas, a faded bathrobe and black hairnet, Evelyn Kposowa sat in her car waiting for her husband to finish talking to friends. She said she's lived with her husband in one of the two apartments in the duplex for nearly 30 years.
"I was sleeping and my husband was awake," she said, her face solemn as she recalled the morning. "I remember him waking me up saying there was smoke in the house. He ran out first."
The Kposowas' side of the home was not as damaged as their neighbors, but Ms. Kposowa said fire officials had not let her back in to look.
Two separate families lived on the other side of the home; one on the first floor and one in the basement, 11 people in all. It did not appear that anyone from those apartments was at the scene early Sunday afternoon.
Ms. Kposowa said she and her husband would be staying with friends for the short term while they figured out what to do about their home. Despite the situation, she said she was thanking God she and her husband were safe, and even managed a knowing laugh and shake of her head as she saw a few snowflakes falling.
Neighbors around the corner,Catherine Calacal and her daughter said they heard two loud bangs before the fire started.
"I heard an explosion," the older Ms. Calacal said. "I heard it twice. I thought it was someone banging on my basement door. We looked out and saw black smoke."
The fire in Chillum was the second emergency of the day for Prince George's County firefighters. About 5:15 a.m. Sunday, a woman and her 50-year-old husband in Oxon Hill were injured when the man attempted to fill a kerosene heater. Chief Bashoor said the man was attempting to fill the heater not only inside his home, but while the heater was still burning fuel.
"He's not doing well at all," Chief Bashoor said of the husband. "He's in grave condition."
Reports of a small fire caused by smoldering material in a Fairmont Heights attic was also reported Sunday, but nobody was injured.
Though no fire was reported, several people in an Upper Marlboro home were taken to the hospital at 11 a.m. Sunday after they were sickened by a gas leak from a malfunctioning heating system at their home.
Sunday was not the only busy day for Prince George's County firefighters. On Saturday, firefighters were called to a home in Seat Pleasant for a chimney fire, while Wednesday a two-story home in Laurel was burned when the tank for a propane-fueled smoker caught fire as the home's residents cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving.
Prince George's County was not the only area to report several house fires over the weekend. In Missouri, a Thanksgiving fire in an apartment killed five people, including one child. A house in Illinois was destroyed by a fire Wednesday, but the family living there managed to escape uninjured.
In the state of Washington, more than two dozen people living in an apartment building were forced to evacuate their homes Thursday because of a three-alarm fire.
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