Shortly after more than 150 merchants and residents crowded into Ellicott City's fire station last night seeking reassurances about a rash of arsons in the historic district, a suspect was arrested nearby.
Details about the arrest were still sketchy late last night, but Howard County police said a man was caught in the act of setting a fire across the Patapsco River, on the Baltimore County side of Ellicott City.
Earlier, they and state officials told the audience of nervous Ellicott City residents and shopkeepers that undercover patrols had been stepped up and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had joined the investigation.
"We need the federal resources to go beyond what we can do in this town," State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele told the audience.
In the past month, five fires have occurred within a six-block area in the historic district of Ellicott City. Four of the five fires were established as arson, but the fifth -- at a furniture warehouse -- burned so thoroughly that state fire officials say they may never be able to determine its cause.
Last night's arrest apparently was made during an attempt to set a sixth fire.
Only an hour before the meeting, a porch was set afire in the 8400 block of Main St. It destroyed some wood railing and a garden hose and apparently died on its own, said Battalion Chief Donald Howell. While damage was assessed at only $100, Chief Howell said it could have been much worse because fuel tanks were nearby.
Some residents at the meeting said they were growing afraid of staying in their homes, noting that many of the buildings in the historic section are not only old but made of wood and set close together, so that a fire could spread easily.
One of the arsons was reported Wednesday afternoon at the Antique Depot in the 3700 block of Maryland Ave., across from the B&O Railroad Museum. Chief Howell said an overstuffed chair on the antique store's second level was set ablaze; damage from that, too, was limited to an estimated $100.
Fire and police officials at last night's meeting told rattled shopkeepers and residents that they were working as hard as they could to catch a suspect but needed help. They asked shopkeepers to keep outside lights on at night and to install sprinkler systems in their stores.
"Firefighters have realized they need things to help them," Mr. Gabriele said. "The thing that helps them is a sprinkler system."
He asked people to call the arson hot line (1-800-492-7529) to report any suspicious activities.
Many store owners said they had already taken it upon themselves to protect their businesses. Some have organized networks to patrol the streets at night, according to Sandy Steinman, who operates an acupuncture office at the 8100 block of Main Street.
She said the feeling around town was anxiety, fear and concern. "There's a sick lunatic around," she said. "It's just horrible. The scary thing is you don't know when the next attack is going to be. And fortunately, no one's been hurt yet."
Other store owners said they had taken preventive measures. Ruth Lentz, owner of Ruthie's Rhapsody Antiques in the 8000 block of Main St., said she kept outside lights on at night.
Diana Deutsch, owner of the Noble House in the 8000 block of Main St., said she increased her fire insurance. "Isn't that terrible?" she said. But I don't know what else I can do."
Fire officials also suggested that store owners check in and around their buildings, securing all doors and crawl spaces before leaving.
Many questions were asked that fire and police officials could not answer. One store owner asked if there were a description of the suspect and another asked for details about the stepped up police patrols.
Some residents of the historic section felt they were being ignored by fire and police officials, saying they didn't see any extra police in their neighborhood.
Ten-year resident Michael Prietz said he stays up until 2 a.m., sometimes walking the streets to make sure there's no suspicious activity.