- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Task-force officials hunting a serial arsonist who has struck the region nearly 40 times over the past 18 months said yesterday that Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell will remain the public face of the investigation, even though he no longer works in Prince George’s County, where the investigation began.

Chief Blackwell left Prince George’s County last month to become fire chief in neighboring Anne Arundel County. The investigation into the serial arsonist began in Prince George’s after a series of deliberately set fires in April and May 2003 were determined to be similar.

None of the fires has been set in Anne Arundel County, though the county’s fire department is a member of the multijurisdictional Arson Task Force.

“It is because of the knowledge he has,” said Prince George’s County fire department spokes-man Mark Brady. “[Chief Blackwell] has the institutional knowledge since day one and the contacts with the other agencies. We feel extremely confident with that.”

Mr. Brady said representatives of the agencies leading the investigation — fire departments in the District, Prince George’s County, Fairfax County, Montgomery County and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — decided Chief Blackwell would remain at the head of the investigation.

So far, 18 arsons and one attempted arson have occurred in the District, where the only fatality occurred when an elderly woman was killed in a June 2003 fire. The arsonist has struck 16 times in Prince George’s County, twice in Fairfax County and once in Montgomery County and Alexandria.

Mr. Brady said the structure of the task force has not changed. He said local jurisdictions would still provide information about fires in their area, but that Chief Blackwell would speak if the fires were connected to the arsonist. “More than likely, if there is a need for an announcement, he will come back to Prince George’s County or the jurisdiction where the fire took place,” Mr. Brady said.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said the District continues to have two fire investigators assigned full-time to the task force.

“Most of the fires have occurred in the District, and we’re happy to be a vital part of the task force,” Mr. Etter said. “Chief Blackwell has done a fine job as a spokesman and we expect he will continue to do that.”

The Arson Task Force is still examining a fire set outside a home in Fairfax County on Monday. The fire, if added to the other arsons, would mark the first time the serial arsonist has struck since a June 15 fire in Prince George’s County.

Chief Blackwell said more analysis needs to be done, and that’s expected to take some time.

The fire in the Huntington section of the county does have similarities to some others. It started on the outside of the house in the early morning hours. No one was home, and no one was hurt.

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