WASHINGTON – The Capitol Police on Monday alerted people at the Capitol and surrounding complex not to enter or exit for a brief period because of what was characterized as “an external security threat,” which turned out to be a small fire several blocks away.

A rehearsal for Wednesday’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris was underway at the time; U.S. Capitol police quickly ushered participants inside the rotunda and locked the doors.

“Due to an external security threat located under the bridge on I-295 at First and F Streets SE, no entry or exit is permitted at this time,” the police said in an alert that went out to members of Congress, staffers and others who work inside the building shortly after 10 a.m. “You may move throughout the buildings but stay away from exterior windows and doors. If you are outside, seek cover.”

From the Capitol, where Biden is scheduled to sworn in at noon Wednesday, smoke could be seen coming from the location of the bridge.

Shortly afterward, D.C. firefighters announced that they had responded “to an outside fire in the 100 block of H St SE that has been extinguished.”

“There were no injuries. This accounts for smoke that many have seen,” D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services said on Twitter.


The alert was lifted and the all-clear given shortly after 11 a.m., and the rehearsal resumed.

D.C. police spokesman Stephen Benson said the fire started at a homeless encampment. He said the alert was sent because of the proximity of the fire to the Capitol, which – along with much of the rest of downtown Washington – has been on high alert since the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol by a mob protesting President Trump’s election defeat.

The fire occurred after propane in a Coleman heater exploded, said D.C. Fire spokesman Vito Maggiolo.

He called the explosion was “very minor” and said firefighters extinguished the blaze quickly. A woman who had been using the heater suffered minor injuries but declined to be taken to a hospital, Maggiolo said.

– – –

The Washington Post’s Peter Hermann contributed to this report.