Searching for answers

Howard County: Cause of Ellicott City fire turned out to be simple, but solution won't be easy.

November 18, 1999

FURTHER proof of resilience among merchants on Ellicott City's fire-devastated Main Street comes now in response to the finding that careless smoking was the probable cause. Few of the businessmen are calling for the smoker's head.

Seventeen-year-old Matthew Reisner reported the fire in the first place, helped lead an elderly tenant to safety and later acknowledged that his smoking may have started it all.

His boss praised his work ethic and said he wouldn't hesitate to re-hire him.

Homespun virtues and stoic acceptance must merge now with community resolve to reduce the risk of another catastrophic fire. If anything, the urgency for a solution intensified with knowledge that a single cigarette could set off such a conflagration.

Young Reisner suggests the blaze was an act of God. Perhaps. But the hand of man was in the mix as well.

It will remain there -- more helpfully one hopes -- as local and state officials consider ways to reduce the risk. Del. Robert L. Flanagan, who represents the district in Annapolis, says businessmen, fire officials and others should explore the possibility that sprinkler systems could be installed more economically if enough of the merchants were involved.

Would sprinklers lead to enough of a reduction in insurance premiums to cover some of the cost? Could the state or county find a way to advance money for the initial installation?

Every option should be explored, quickly. Some of the merchants are, understandably, quite demoralized-- and some may find the prospect of rebuilding too daunting. As long as the threat of more fires - and little defense against them - continues that reaction is both understandable and prudent.

The need for the community - public and private - is compelling because the Main Street attraction is such a delight. And by the way, shops that were not damaged are open for your Christmas shopping pleasure.

Mr. Flanagan's idea of a grand re-opening to issue an invitation to shoppers is a fine one.

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