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Strong winds topple National Christmas Tree

Fierce winds swept through the mid-Atlantic region, knocking out power to thousands, fanning fires and toppling the National Christmas Tree.
Image: National Park Service spokesman holds onto his hat in the strong winds that felled the National Christmas Tree near the White House in Washington
National Park Service spokesman Bill Line holds onto his hat in the strong winds that felled the National Christmas Tree near the White House in Washington on Saturday.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Fierce winds swept through the mid-Atlantic region Saturday, knocking out power to thousands, fanning fires and toppling the National Christmas Tree.

More than 100,000 customers lost power in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia at some point Saturday, but power had been restored to most of them by Saturday evening.

The National Christmas Tree is a Colorado blue spruce that was planted on the Ellipse, near the White House, in 1978. It was 15 years old and 30 feet tall when it was planted. It's now 47 years old and stood about 42 feet.

National Park Service spokesman Bill Line told The Washington Post that the tree fell just before 11 a.m. Saturday. He said a successor had already been picked and will be planted in coming weeks.

"I would say we're sad, but we knew this would happen," Line said to the Post, noting that previous National Christmas Trees have also been felled by winds, in part because they are not as sheltered from the elements as they would be in a forest.

The tree was scheduled to be mulched Saturday afternoon.

The gusts that felled the tree were part of a system that brought winds up to 74 mph to Massachusetts, caused lake effect snow that forced closure of a stretch of I-80 in upstate New York and fanned dozens of wildfires in the mid-Atlantic region.

Wooster, Mass., saw wind speeds hit 74 mph, just below hurricane force. Washington and Philadelphia saw 55 mph and at New York's JFK International Airport, wind registered up to 60 mph. JFK saw flight delays of more than an hour.

In New York, zero visibility and wind caused authorities to closed down Interstate 80 in Rochester. The system affected travel all the way to Binghamton and Syracuse.

Crews work to upright telephone poles Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011, in Plainsboro, N.J., after strong winds snapped utility poles and knocked down power lines across the state. Wind gusts up to 60 mph on Saturday afternoon left thousands of utility customers in New Jersey without electricity. They also uprooted many trees, some of which brought down wires or damaged homes and vehicles. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)Mel Evans / AP

Interstate 95 in central Maryland was closed because of smoke from the fires, which also affected the interstate in northern Virginia. Authorities were reopening the freeway Saturday evening.

Strong winds, mild temperatures and extremely dry air were contributing to the blazes. No deaths or serious injuries had been reported Saturday.

In Prince George's County, Md., all off-duty firefighters were called to duty. One of the worst fires was at a mulch plant in Laurel, where piles of mulch burned out of control for hours. The blaze jumped into the median of I-95, prompting state police to shut down the highway.

Also in Prince George's, a brush fire believed to have started at a farm damaged as many as 20 structures, including homes, sheds and barns, said Mark Brady, a county fire department spokesman. Firefighters from northern Virginia were called in to assist because the county fire department was stretched so thin.

The Carolinas were also affected by the conditions. State Forestry Service spokesman Brian Haines told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that about 130 fires were being fought across the state Saturday.

Winds were expected to exacerbate a wildfire burning near Chimney Rock in the western part of the state that has already scorched 1,400 acres.

In South Carolina, State Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins told The Sun News of Myrtle Beach that firefighters had been called to 77 wildfires statewide.

Hawkins said many of the calls were for brush or yard fires. Debris burning causes about 40 percent of all wildfires in that state.

In the Baltimore area, some customers lost water service after the high winds knocked out power to water pumping stations, city public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said. The exact number of customers wasn't immediately known. Other customers were urged to conserve water until power was restored.

Meanwhile, parts of the West were expected to be hit by more heavy rain and snow.

The past week has seen up to a foot of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains and rain has drenched parts of the desert Southwest. The precipitation will continue overnight.

"The systems that will eventually bring rain and snow to the Midwest and Northeast are currently bringing rain and mountain snow to much of the Southwest," said Weather Channel meteorologist Mark Avery.

The front will move across the plains overnight turning into possibly heavy snow from South Dakota to eastern Michigan on Sunday, the Channel's website said.

A second system will bring rain a bit further south in the Ozarks and the Ohio Valley on Monday before drying up on Tuesday.

This article contains reporting by staff, The Associated Press and Reuters.