Officials suspect arson at student-built homes in Clinton -- Gazette.Net







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Prince George's County fire officials say two Clinton homes built by county students may have been intentionally set on fire, and now officials are working with county police to find those responsible for the blazes.

The two fires — the first occurred Jan. 1 and the second occurred Monday — were in the 8200 block of Student Drive, a street used for the Prince George's County Public Schools Student Built House Project, a program for students from various schools to learn construction skills by building homes that are sold to and occupied by county residents. The school system works with the Foundation for Applied Construction Technology for Students, or FACTS, while going through each step of home-building to complete one home per year.

The first incident of possible arson occurred at a vacant home that had been foreclosed on at 8202 Student Drive around 6:15 p.m. Jan. 1, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the county fire/EMS department. Brady said firefighters arrived to find flames showing in the second floor and roof of the two-story house. Fire damages totaled $250,000, he said.

The second fire, around 1:30 a.m. Monday, was at a home that was still under construction. Brady said construction crews still needed to add drywall to the structure and had four temporary propane heaters inside that exploded when the home was set on fire.

“The house burned up so quickly that the propane heaters exploded,” he said.

One heater flew about 50 yards away and struck the rear of a parked vehicle, another heater went through a neighbor's garage door, and the others flew off behind the home into a wooded area, he said.

No one was injured, Brady said.

“Fire investigators did recover some evidence that's being analyzed, and just the fact that they were right next to each other and both to unoccupied properties makes them suspicious,” Brady said.

Brady also said the fire/EMS department is working with county police on the investigation and looking into a possible connection between the two fires and a string of vandalism incidents occurring in the same area.

Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the school system, said there are 30 homes across the county that are part of the student home-building program.

Roughly seven homes are located on Student Drive, while the others are located in subdivisions across the county, he said.

The construction program began in Prince George's County in 1981, Coleman said. He said hundreds of students have a hand in building one home per academic year and, under supervision, students are responsible for all aspects of constructing the homes including plumbing, heating, electrical and landscaping.

“Our students have been working extremely hard on this project, and we will continue to work closely with the [FACTS] Board of Directors to ensure the project moves forward in spite of this devastating setback,” Coleman said. “We're working with fire investigators throughout this investigation.”

He said there is no indication that students were involved in the possible arson cases.

Once homes are sold, any proceeds from sales are used as seed money for the following year's construction projects, he said.

Erica Thomas, who lives across the street in one of the student-built homes, said she's worried about the recent fires.

“It's very scary. It's just a very scary thought,” she said.

She moved into her home three years ago after she said her real estate agent made them aware of the student home-building program. Thomas said she went to an open house ceremony that acknowledged the students for their work.

Fire officials are asking those with information on the incidents to call 301-771-ARSON to aid in the investigation.