Richard Montgomery High School recently became a shelter for more than 60 displaced residents of Fireside Park Apartments, which caught on fire on February 2, 2018. Billowing flames engulfed three interconnected apartment buildings on 735 Monroe Street around 1:30 p.m., but the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“I’m en-route to this apartment fire located just south of DT Rockville. Fire was just upgraded to a third alarm. Big emergency response,” tweeted Kevin Lewis, a reporter for ABC News.
The emergency response consisted of 150 firefighters who rushed to the scene. By the time they arrived, the fire had already spread from a wooden balcony and reached the second and third floors of the apartment building located on 701 Monroe Street. It eventually spread to several other apartment buildings, leaving great damage in its wake.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services Spokesperson Pete Piringer believed that stopping the fire was no easy feat, since the 20 to 30 mile-per-hour wind gusts spread flames from one building to another.
“The weather challenge here was the wind,” according to Piringer. He continued, “This was definitely a wind-driven fire, which means it got up in the attic area… so that was the biggest challenge. The wind was not in our favor.”
Low temperatures further complicated matters, because the water that was being used to fight the fires began turning into ice.
Despite these complications, the buildings were successfully evacuated, and the fire was put out by 4:30 p.m. Only a single firefighter and at least one dog suffered an injury. No civilians were harmed, as many residents worked together to escape safely.
“It’s very scary, very scary. I remembered that there’s an old woman in the basement… and then I told her you have to get out right now, and then she got out,” said a resident of the apartment buildings.
“A tenant came and knocked on my door, slamming on my door, saying there was a fire,” another resident said. “I grabbed all my stuff and started knocking on all the doors in my apartment complex, telling everyone to get out.”
Many residents were seen without coats in the frigid weather, and at least one resident ran outside without shoes.
Around 30 units were damaged in the fire, leaving 33 families homeless. The estimated damage amounts to $2 million, $1.5 million of which is the physical cost of the structural damages, with the remainder representing family belongings.
Montgomery County and the American Red Cross quickly opened an overnight shelter at RM for the impacted residents. Immediate and long term needs such as food, shelter, and clothing were assessed and help was provided.
“All indoor community use of Richard Montgomery High School is canceled today 2/2/18 and will remain closed Saturday, 2/3/18, and Sunday, 2/4/18, due to the facility being utilized as an emergency shelter for residents displaced by the Monroe Street fire,” tweeted the MCPS Emergency Management team.
However, many Richard Montgomery students spent their weekend completely unaware of what was happening in their own high school. When freshman Joanna Ge learned of what occured at RM in her absence, however, she was pleased to know how generously RM opened its doors.
“It makes me proud that our school is offering assistance to people in need and it really shows how supportive our community is. I’m glad that we were able to help,” Ge said.
In the aftermath of the fire, an “After-the-Fire” meeting was held between the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) crews from Rockville and surrounding areas and the residents of the Fireside Apartments in the afternoon February 3. The MCFRS crews checked smoke detectors and discussed fire safety and prevention, as part of the Safety in Our Neighborhood Campaign.
“I guess it’s nice that they know now but it doesn’t seem that effective because the fire already happened,” said senior Isabella Loomis Howard.
The sentiments expressed by Loomis Howard may have been felt by the impacted families themselves as they returned to their former lodgings to salvage belongings that were not completely destroyed by the fire. A number of possible ignition sources, including charcoal, a gas grill, and/or a discarded cigarette, are still being investigated.
In the wake of RM’s role as an emergency shelter, people are continuing in their efforts to aid the former Fireside residents. Organizations such as Rockville Housing Enterprises, Interfaith Works, and A Wider Circle are all accepting donations of clothing, household items, hygiene products, and much more. The Richard Montgomery High School community wishes these victims all the best.
Featured photo courtesy of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue