Howard County police are stepping up patrols in historic Ellicott City in response to three suspicious fires there in less than 20 days.
The fires have unnerved residents and merchants, who are scheduled to meet with police and firefighters at a special meeting Thursday night to discuss methods of preventing fires and of spotting possible arsonists.
"For the residents down there, it causes a great amount of insecurity," said County Council member Darrell Drown, R-2nd. "These people have put a lot on the line. Their businesses are on the line. Even if they have fire insurance, it may not be enough to cover their losses."
Some merchants said they have increased their insurance since the first fire last month. The State Fire Marshal's Office has ruled two of them as arson, while the third remains under investigation.
The latest fire -- ruled arson -- occurred in the 8400 block of Main Street shortly after midnight on Sunday, causing $5,000 damage to a vacant lawn mower repair shop.
Reda Wiles, who lives across the street, said the neighborhood was lucky.
"These houses are wooden, and it doesn't take much for the whole neighborhood to go up," she said. "We're fortunate that no one's died yet."
Late Thursday, a three-alarm blaze leveled a 120-year-old warehouse that stored wooden tables and other furniture. Damage at Taylor's Furniture was estimated at $500,000 and was so great that state fire officials say they may never be able to determine the cause.
Almost three weeks ago, a two-alarm fire at Ellicott's Country Store and the Heirlooms Too antique shop caused $200,000 damage. The Feb. 19 fire, which also ruined two overhead apartments, has been ruled arson by the Fire Marshal's Office.
Officials said they hope Thursday's meeting will curb anxiety in the town.
"What we're trying to do is get as many people as aware as possible, to show them how to look for potential arsonists, to get the business and residents together," Mr. Drown said.
"We just think that in this situation, it's urgent enough to notify people to take as many safety precautions as possible," he said.
But some said there's simply not much that can be done.
"The only stepped-up security we can have is to be careful, be very careful," said Bea Ferguson, manager of Leidig's Bakery in the 8100 block of Main Street. "We have to be alert and take care of one another, in general."
Leidig's was the site of a major fire in 1984, when a faulty air conditioner overheated and damaged five adjacent buildings, causing $1.3 million damage.
Yesterday, Leidig's employees said they were glad the bakery had been modernized.
At the same time, some speculated on the recent fires. "It's all the old buildings that are going up," said Susan Hamblin, a bakery clerk.
Down one block at Celebrate Maryland, a knickknack store that sells Maryland souvenirs, manager Cynthia Shock said merchants want an end to the fires. "There's not much you can do other than have adequate fire insurance," she said. "You feel very helpless."