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Posted at 8:35 PM ET, 08/14/2010

D.C. hotels evacuated during fire

By Eric Athas

UPDATE: The Post's Michael Birnbaum and Martin Weil have more details on the fire here.

Earlier: A column of flame leapt from beneath a downtown Washington sidewalk Saturday night as an underground electrical fire prompted the evacuation of two hotels and darkened streets near the White House.

The fire broke out about 7:45 p.m. in the 1400 block of F Street NW, which is occupied by the Willard and the W hotels. A transformer below the sidewalk apparently was the source of the blaze.

“It was pretty spectacular,” said D.C. fire department spokesman Pete Piringer.

He said flames shot about 25 or 30 feet above the pavement.

No injuries were reported, and firefighters brought the blaze under control within minutes. But visitors to the downtown area saw clouds of billowing black smoke rising into the air.

Traffic in the neighborhood, a few blocks from the Mall and a center for dining and entertainment, was brought to a standstill.

Fire equipment converged on the area, and a crowd gathered to watch from beyond the cordoned-off areas.

It did not appear that the flames caused any damage to nearby buildings, including the two landmark hotels.

However, Piringer said the hotels were being evacuated as a precaution.

In addition to dousing the flames, from the fire, firefighters sprayed water on the nearby buildings to prevent any possible spread of the fire.

Piringer said it appeared that the fire involved a transformer in an underground electrical vault. He said water from recent heavy rain might have caused damaged the electrical device and caused overheating.

He said the clouds of smoke were apparently generated by the burning of oil that is used to insulate or carry heat from the transformers.

It was not immediately clear to what extent electrical service would be affected by the fire.

Piringer said power had been cut off for “blocks around” as a result of the fire.

But details were not available, and it was not known how far the blackout extended or when power might be restored.

--Michael Birnbaum and Martin Weil

By Eric Athas  | August 14, 2010; 8:35 PM ET
Categories:  DC  
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