A Short History of White House Fires

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

A Secret Service officer keeps people back as smoke billows from the Eisenhower Executive Office Buildings next to the White House in Washington, December 19, 2007.

Putting aside the bizarre incidents — like the time an FBI informant set himself on fire in front of the White House in 2004 or the time a small plane crashed into the White House in 1994 — regular, workaday fires like the one that happened this morning in Vice President Dick Cheney's ceremonial suite at the Old Executive Office are not actually all that common on the White House grounds. Given the 27 wood-burning fireplaces, high volume of bureaucratic traffic and constant maintenance and refurbishing, it is not too bad a record.

In modern times, fires break out roughly two times every decade at the White House. The last real bonfire was way back in 1929 on Christmas Eve, when the West Wing was gutted by a massive conflagration. President Herbert Hoover had to leave his Christmas party to oversee the removal of important papers from the Oval Office. (But the Marine Band played on, and the First lady kept the party going.) The doozy, of course, was in 1814, when the invading Brits set the White House on fire. (Dolley Madison had to smuggle out the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington before the British troops got to the mansion.) Only the outside walls remained standing — and that was probably because of a timely thunderstorm that helped contain the fire. Scorch marks from that blaze are still apparent in some walls in the White House.

More recently, a small fire broke out on the exterior of the East Wing in 2000. That one started the way most White House fires start — as workers were painting or removing paint or otherwise refurbishing some corner of the place. In 1995, a tour bus burst into flames on Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House. The heat peeled the paint at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse. In the 1980s, there was a string of fire and smoke incidents under President Ronald Reagan, including one in the mess. But none did much damage.

Why haven't there been more fires at the White House? A serious fire detection system was installed in 1965. And it's very sensitive. When a sensor detects smoke, a warning goes off in the Secret Service's control center in the White House. The D.C. Fire Department is quickly called, and at least five engines and two ladder trucks respond from any one of several surrounding stations.(A unit is on hand anytime a helicopter takes off or lands at the White House.)

The response is slowed — slightly — by the Secret Service, which checks the ID of all the firefighters and then escorts them to the smoke. But the two organizations have fairly good relations these days, and the delay is usually only a minute or two. The best fire prevention system, though, is probably the security — and the workaholics. "If you had somebody walking through your house every floor, every day, you wouldn't have any problems either," says Walter Gold, executive director of the DC Fire Department Museum who responded in his volunteer capacity to the fire at the White House today. "It wasn't much of a fire," he says.