Howard County police are stepping up patrols in historic Ellicott City in response to three suspicious fires there in less than three weeks.
The fires have unnerved residents and merchants, who are scheduled to meet with police and firefighters Thursday night to discuss methods of preventing fires and 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 latest fire -- ruled an arson -- occurred in the 8400 block of Main St. 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 where wooden tables and other furniture were stored. The damage at Taylor's Furniture was estimated at $500,000 and was so complete 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 antiques shop caused $200,000 damage. The Feb. 19 fire, which also ruined two apartments, has been ruled an arson by the Fire Marshal's Office.
Officials said they hope Thursday's meeting will help 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 St. "We have to be alert and take care of one another, in general."
Leidig's was the site of a 1984 fire that started in a faulty air conditioner and burned five adjacent buildings, causing $1.3 million in damage.