Officials say there was no threat to the public and the fire, about 1.6km away from the Capitol, has been extinguished.
Central Washington is an armed fortress, fenced off with razor wire and surrounded by 25,000 National Guard troops ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, a stark contrast to previous inaugurations when the United States capital erupted in days of celebration.
The COVID-19 pandemic had already cancelled the inaugural balls. Now the National Mall is closed to the public due to threats of violence from groups who attacked the US Capitol on January 6. Almost none of the public will witness firsthand the transition of power, souring the mood of Washingtonians.
“It’s like a ghost town but with soldiers,” said Dana O’Connor, who walked with her husband past concrete barriers near the White House on Sunday. “It’s eerie. It feels super unnatural.”
Previous inaugurations sometimes drew over a million spectators to the National Mall, to watch the ceremony from giant television screens and the new president parading on foot from the Capitol to the White House. Balls and parties in hotel ballrooms and convention halls across the city feted guests with champagne and music from A-list stars.
Presidential inaugurations are normally high-security events, with metal detectors at key entry points, restricted ID-only zones and the National Guard supplementing local and federal law enforcement. But the level of precautions this year is unprecedented.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Sunday that law enforcement officials had no choice but to ramp up security after the deadly Capitol attack, where “so-called patriots would attempt to overthrow their government and kill police officers”.
“We don’t want to see fences. We definitely don’t want to see armed troops on our streets. But we do have to take a different posture,” Bowser said on the NBC programme Meet the Press.
The city will see little of the $107m increase in tax revenue that an inauguration week normally brings, the DowntownDC Business Improvement District estimates.