- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

Fire officials yesterday said that an early-morning fire that slightly damaged a new day-laborer center in Montgomery County was deliberately set.

The fire was reported at about 6:15 a.m. at the double-wide trailer housing the center at 16642 Crabbs Branch Way outside Gaithersburg.

Montgomery County fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said the fire was set sometime overnight and had burned itself out by the time it was reported to the fire department. No one was injured and the damage was minimal, Mr. Piringer said. The fire had singed some wood planks on a deck and burned some insulation underneath the trailer, he added.

“At this point, [fire investigators] have determined that the fire was deliberately set,” he said, adding that investigators found a 25-to-30-foot trail of a petroleum-based flammable liquid on the sidewalk leading away from the trailer.

The liquid had been spread outside the door of the trailer, on a ramp leading to the door and on the ground nearby. The smell of gasoline was still strong in the air yesterday afternoon, although no fire damage was visible.

The fire is the latest development in the ongoing dispute over the center, which is run by the immigrant-advocacy group CASA of Maryland.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, said he thought the center was attacked by people who didn’t want to see it succeed.

The often-contentious debate over the center began more than two years ago, when Gaithersburg city officials tried to find a permanent site for a day-laborer center. But after deals for several sites fell through, the city abandoned its plans late last year.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett announced in January that he would set aside a half-acre parcel on an industrial stretch of county-owned land just outside Gaithersburg to build the center, which opened on April 16.

Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman, said he told Mr. Leggett about the fire yesterday morning and that the executive called it a “shameful and despicable act.”

“There’s differences of opinion, but this is crossing the line,” Mr. Lacefield said, adding that the fire did not stop the center from opening yesterday.

He said the center operated out of the parking lot and that its workers have found jobs for more than 100 people since it opened three weeks ago.

Mr. Lacefield and Mr. Torres each said officials were aware of no specific threats warning of yesterday’s fire and that two other county-sanctioned centers in Silver Spring and Wheaton have had no trouble.

“We haven’t had really any problems,” Mr. Lacefield said. “There was no warning anything like this would happen.”

He said additional measures would be taken to protect the center, but he declined to reveal what those measures might entail.

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