- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Oh, it’s just a fire? If it weren’t for a cunning cat, an area arson task force would have another death on its hands.

Yes, one Washington woman credited her cat with waking her up and saving her life. Another woman said it was a crackling sound that awakened her so she could get out in time. A third said she saw an orange glow too bright to signal daybreak that alarmed her.

One 86-year-old woman, however, wasn’t as fortunate after a serial arsonist set her Northeast home ablaze.

So far, count one death and seven injuries during the past six months. Local and federal law enforcement authorities are trying to apprehend an arsonist who may be connected with at least six of 28 suspect fires on the other side of town — far from the glitter of HBO’s “K Street” spotlights. If the serial arsonist were treated more like the serial sniper — to whom he can be likened — would the culprit have been captured by now? Are residents in these working-class neighborhoods right to wonder whether a more comprehensive regional response to the random torcher would have been mobilized were half-million-dollar houses west of Rock Creek Park or beyond the Beltway being burned? Geography is everything, and not just with real estate prices.

To date, only a paltry purse, $21,000, has been offered as a reward for the burner. Again a lucky break — due to the perpetrator’s mistake — provides the public with information to help officials in apprehending a suspect. This brazen would-be murderer is roaming the Prince George’s-D.C. border, randomly setting homes ablaze in the middle of the night while people are inside asleep, all the while making certain to block at least one escape route from their burning abodes.

It’s the randomness of these fires, much like the randomness of the sniper shootings, that is so unnerving. So many of us feared going about our daily routines when the snipers were at large about a year ago. Now, so many terrified residents in the affected neighborhoods are going to bed with one eye and one ear open, listening for suspect noises or scared pets.

If these deadly fires do not constitute attempted assault, if not murder, then what does? If this community crisis does not warrant the same all-consuming effort as the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area, then what does? Yet, folks, including the police and the press, have been painfully slow to catch fire about this hit-or-miss pyromaniac. Worse, a smoldering sense that these are “only fires” that happen “over there” persists.

Mind you, these fires have occurred at a rate of thrice a week except for when the fire starter took a summer vacation.

Kelly Long, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which is heading up the task force, agrees that too often people think “it’s just arson … but it’s not a victimless crime.”

Whenever there’s a fire, firefighters are put at risk, even if no one else is. “People think nobody’s hurt, but there could have been a loss of life,” she said. The task force is right to seek tips of great or small magnitude through its 301/777-ARSON tip line.

Still, we have not seen the public urgency these random arson fires warrant given so that people’s lives are not endangered. Everyone must get involved just as we did when we were on high alert in October. However, the nagging question that needs to be raised: Can residents feel confident that the task force is up to the job of solving this crime?

Ms. Long said it’s prosecutors or the State’s Attorney’s Office that determine at what point the character of an investigation changes. It’s an overdue decision if it could have brought more resources to bear.

But she pointed out that the task force is made up of 10 agencies, including D.C., Prince George’s and Maryland state police as well as fire officials from both jurisdictions in addition to ATF agents. The fire task force, whose undisclosed number of members varies, according to Ms. Long, had been hoping for a lucky break not unlike the snafus — brought on by the perpetrators themselves — that brought the sniper task force to a close.

It appears that they finally got one. Yesterday, Prince George’s Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell announced that witnesses to the most recent blaze saw a strange man on their property in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The brave souls confronted the man before he ran off on foot.

Fortunately, they got a good enough look at the intruder, which provided the task force with enough information to release a composite drawing.

Again, a random killer — this one toting plastic bottles filled with gasoline — is on the loose in the region. Therefore, our regional response requires far more than just shrugging shoulders and saying, “Oh, it’s just another fire over there.”

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