The Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department is using Arson Awareness Week -- which runs May 6-12 -- to not only focus on the theme of youth firesetting, but to also shine a light back on a still unsolved fire that badly injured seven firefighters on Feb. 24.
The wind-fueled blaze occurred at a vacant house at 6404 57th Avenue in Riverdale and has since been determined by investigators to be the work of an arsonist.
Crews entered the structure through the front door when a gust of wind that entered through the basement sent a fireball up through a stairwell, engulfing the first floor and burning all seven firefighters.
Of the firefighters hurt, Kevin O'Toole and Ethan Sorrell sustained critical injuries. Sorrell was released days after the fire while O'Toole wasn't released until April 20 and still has a long road to recovery ahead of him.
"(Arson Awareness Week) provides us an opportunity to reintroduce this fire to the public to keep them looking at it," department spokesman Mark Brady told Firehouse.com. "We know somebody out there knows something and are trying to bring some attention back to it."
Currently the ATF is offering a $5,000 reward and CrimeStoppers is offering $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest and indictment of the person or persons responsible for the fire "There is a personal interest by fire investigators and firefighters that the person who did this be brought to justice," Brady said. "They hurt firefighters, they hurt our brothers. They weren't just a little hurt, they were hurt big time."
The department's Juvenile Fire Setter program was launched in 1991 to identify and assist children who have a curiosity about fire or a history of setting fires and playing with flammables.
"What we hope to do is make this program visible to residents so that if they recognize a child that has a propensity for fire, they show them to our councilors," Brady said. "It's the goal of that program to steer those kids from firesetting."
Children as young as three and up to the age of 18 may be referred to the program.
This week, firefighters are out at area schools as part of "career day" and while there, they have been talking to staff and administrators about the issue of youth firesetting.
Brady said that many of the referrals come from the school system.
Once a referral is made, councilors take steps to provide age-based fire safety education, and in some cases counseling for the juveniles and their families.
He said that the county's youth arson problem is probably on average with other jurisdictions and that because the county labels juvenile arsons as "accidental" fires, there is no hard data on how many occur.
He said that they try not to advertise the fact that a juvenile set the fire so that negative connotations aren't labeled toward that child that could drive them to do it again.
Brady stressed importance for departments to get their communities involved and that by driving the message home to parents, teachers and the children themselves, many of the youth-set arson can be prevented.
"Every arson fire is a matter of concern for firefighters that fight it," he said. "We'd much rather be doing (prevention) than having to put out the fire."