Fire sparks false alarm in jittery Washington as troops hit streets
The US Capitol complex temporarily locked down during a rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration after a fire in a homeless encampment roughly a kilometer away sent a plume of smoke into the air and triggered security concerns.
Firefighters were called to the homeless encampment shortly before 10:15am, where a woman who lived there had a portable heater with a flammable gas tank, fire department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said.
The woman, who was injured but declined medical treatment, told firefighters that the flames spread quickly and her possessions were burned.
The fire was extinguished almost immediately after firefighters arrived.
Participants of the rehearsal were ushered from the West Front of the Capitol. Those who had gathered for a walk-through, including a military band, were directed to head indoors and moved in the direction of a secure location inside the Capitol complex.
People involved in the rehearsal said security officials yelled “this is not a drill.”
The false alarm briefly interrupted the rehearsal for the ceremony, a quadrennial exercise in which stand-ins take the roles of Biden and other VIPs and the US Marine Band goes through its paces.
Rehearsal resumed about an hour later, accompanied by frequent passes by helicopters patrolling the skies over the Capitol.
Law enforcement officials said there was no threat to the public and the fire was not believed to be a threat to the inauguration. Local firefighters put out the blaze quickly.
The evacuation of some participants and the lockdown was ordered by the acting chief of Capitol Police in an abundance of caution, officials said.
The fast decision to lock down underscores the fear that has gripped Washington since the deadly January 6 insurrection by pro-Trump rioters and prompted extraordinary measures ahead of the inauguration.
Armed protests planned for the past weekend around the country were mostly a bust, but anxiety is still skyrocketing.
The Secret Service tightened security in and around the Capitol a week early in preparation. The city center is essentially on lockdown with streets blocked, high-fencing installed and tens of thousands of National Guard and law enforcement officers stationed around the area.
But US defense officials, worried about a potential insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing the event, pushed the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into the area.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement on Monday that vetting of National Guard troops continues and that the Pentagon has found no intelligence so far that would indicate an insider threat.
Still, the Secret Service issued a bulletin over the weekend about what it sees as an “uptick” in National Guard troops posting pictures and details of their operations online.
“No service members should be posting locations, pictures or descriptions online regarding current operations or the sensitive sites they are protecting” and urged them to stop immediately.
Leaving on a record low
US President Donald Trump will leave the White House on Wednesday with the lowest approval rating of his presidency, with just 34 percent of Americans supporting the job he has done, a Gallup poll showed on Monday.
Trump’s average approval rating during his one-term presidency was 41 percent, four points lower than any of his predecessors since Gallup has been gathering data.
Trump’s job approval had dipped to 35 percent in previous polls.
His all-time high was in early 2020.