Before the recent wave of firebombings in Northwest Baltimore, the agenda for the West Arlington Improvement Association seemed the humdrum stuff of everyday life.

The 500 families who fill the neighborhood's mostly single-family homes were most concerned with reviving a dormant community cleanup drive, getting rid of bulk trash and persuading inspectors to examine dilapidated houses.

But Wednesday night, residents have a new item to discuss: Two of a dozen firebombing attacks since September, most in the northwest part of the city, occurred early Saturday in West Arlington, targeting homes three blocks apart.

The head of the community association, Charles W. Griffin, a retired educator, was busy Tuesday copying newspaper articles describing the attacks so he could distribute them to members. "Frankly, I was shocked and surprised to read this," he said.

West Arlington, an enclave off Wabash Avenue in view of Metro trains rumbling along elevated tracks, has largely been spared the shootings and killings that plague other parts of Baltimore. The neighborhood has its share of break-ins and robberies, but Griffin said he thinks more about people raking autumn leaves off their lawns than violent crime.

The firebombings Saturday targeted homes on Belvieu Avenue and around the corner on Groveland Avenue — at 1:13 a.m. and 1:22 a.m.

A Remy Martin brandy bottle with a lighted wick bounced off a screen at the first home and caused no damage. A Colt 45 malt liquor bottle crashed through a window of the second house, according to police, but the wick fell off and burned out outside.

An hour later, a burning bottle set living room drapes ablaze at a house eight blocks south, on Liberty Heights Avenue. The homeowner put out the fire with a bucket of water.

Nine similar attacks occurred in September, seven in Northwest Baltimore.

Police and fire investigators have expressed frustration. Forensic tests on bottles collected during the first wave of attacks yielded no clues, officials said. A new round of testing is under way after Saturday's incidents. Residents heard cars drive away, but could provide no descriptions.

"As far as I'm concerned with my investigation, the attacks are random," said Baltimore Fire Capt. Stephen Gibson. "There is no rhyme or reason."

Investigators have said the victims are not connected and are not linked to other crimes. All of the attacks occurred in the middle of the night when people were sleeping.

While no one has been injured and no serious damage has resulted, police expressed concern Saturday that a house could catch fire. A police statement said the "potential for serious injury or life-loss from such acts of arson is substantial."

Gibson, a 36-year Fire Department veteran, said investigators have not ruled out a gang of kids, copycats or even "some kind of gang initiation. We're just not sure. I've seen Molotov cocktails, but not this many in so short a period of time. This guy hit in September, left October alone and hit again in November. … We'll get him sooner or later."

While most of the attacks have occurred in Northwest Baltimore, the neighborhoods where the incidents have occurred are scattered — from Howard Park to Grove Park, Greenspring to Calloway-Garrison, Ashburton to West Arlington.

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, whose district includes parts of Liberty Heights Avenue and two communities hit by firebombs, said there has been little discussion by residents.

She noted a community walk scheduled for Wednesday in Garrison Hills and said residents there are more concerned with a killing last month in which a young man was shot outside Sweet Hope Baptist Church on Dolfield Avenue, where the march will begin. It is the only slaying this year in Garrison Hills; there have been none in neighboring West Arlington.

Griffin, who holds a doctoral degree and worked for years helping troubled youngsters, said he hopes residents at Wednesday's meeting in West Arlington "might have seen something that we're not aware of." Block captains keep an eye on suspicious activity in the neighborhood.

"We need to stress that we have to be continually vigilant about strangers," said Griffin, who has headed the community association for the past 25 years.

Also on Wednesday's agenda are discussions on securing trucks for a cleanup.

"Unfortunately, we're not getting all of the support that we would like from the city," he said. Keeping the neighborhood clean, he said, is one key to keeping crime out.

Police have promised more patrols in the area, and Garrison Hills is having its Citizens On Patrol Walk, organized with the help of the mayor's criminal justice office.

"What we need," Griffin said, "is something to be done before" the next firebomb hits.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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