When Romualda Prillman smelled smoke inside her Brightwood home, at 805 Rittenhouse St. NW, she wondered whether her house was on fire. Finding nothing, she sent her children out into the yard to investigate. They soon ran back inside to report that a garage behind 803 Rittenhouse was flaming.

Prillman, a D.C. police officer on leave, called 911. “You could see the flames in the window on the top floor,” she says. The emergency response was immediate. In a few minutes, says Prillman, a ladder truck, fire engine, and two police officers had closed off the street. But there was some debate, says 29-year fire-department veteran Lt. William Gray, as to where the fire actually was.

“We got a standard dispatch, and they’re not wrong for sending too many guys,” says Gray. “But we thought we had a garage that was really on fire. Then we got to the address, pulled around back, and didn’t see anything. This was the kind of fire [neighbors] have to point at: There’s a fire in there? Ahhh. There it is.”

The flames were showing through the upstairs window. Fighters called the 4th Battalion chief, who often attends blazes, and told him to stay at the station for this one. They also canceled a request for two additional engines. “This wasn’t even a nickel’s worth of fire,” says Gray.

Through the garage’s open doors, Lt. Seth Sackey saw a car—a GT Ford Mustang with a 1982 registration sticker on its back plate—parked among ovens, boards, and various bits of trash. “We were kind of concerned the car might flare up and turn into a second alarm,” he says. Before long, though, firefighters figured out that the entire blaze was still upstairs from the Mustang.

Even then, the crew took no chances. Rather than storming the loft, Sackey and others stretched a 200-foot hose line through the yard and sprayed up into the flaming boards. “We were able to contain the fire very quickly,” says Sackey.

After making sure the garage structure was sound, fighters climbed wooden stairs to check out the second story. “We went up and realized it was a place that had been frequented probably by homeless people,” says Sackey. “We saw bottles, human feces, saw crack bags. It looked like a lot of activity goes on up there.” Investigators also saw matches, but they have yet to release a report on the fire’s causes.

803 Rittenhouse has been unoccupied for at least two years, according to Lloyd Avery, a cabdriver who lives across the street. Avery has had only incidental contact with 803’s owner, Jerome Lindsey, who had no comment for this article. In past summers, says Avery, 803’s front porch, lit at night and decorated with artificial trees, provided a hangout for neighborhood kids. “During the weekend, all of them would corral,” he says. “They’d sit out there with their liquor bottles. They’d sit and drink, and play their music, too.”

Avery remembers one time when the stoop-sitters lined up liquor bottles all the way across the porch. “It’s a nuisance,” he says. “And the police never come down.”

For the garage fire, the police and fire attention was considerable. But in the old days, says Gray, a garage fire would have culled a less energetic response. “One company would’ve been up there putting it out, and that would’ve been it,” he says.

Gray says a more cautious breed of firefighters is emerging under the Williams administration. “With the new-style firefighters—they don’t play cards, don’t drink liquor, don’t do nothing,” he says. “I’m the last of the dinosaurs. I’ll be out of here by August. All my guys are gone.” CP