On June 15, a fire thought to be the work of a serial arsonist was set at the Keywood Gardens apartments in Mount Rainier, bringing the total to 39 similarly linked arsons in the Washington region since March 2003. A regional task force, created last year and made up of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, added the latest fire to its list. Prince George's County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, the head of the task force, answered questions from staff writer Jamie Stockwell.

QWhat is the mood of the task force following this latest fire, and is the task force frustrated that a suspect has not been arrested?

AThe task force has remained optimistic throughout the long investigation, and throughout the several phases of the investigation. Many of us have thought it would be a long journey to identify a suspect, but the task force remains energized and very optimistic and very focused on what they need to accomplish.

Many law enforcement agencies in the Washington region have offered resources and support during the investigation. How large is the task force now, and how is the work divided among the investigators?

The amount of resources has increased over the last year because the fires spread from Prince George's and D.C. to Fairfax and Montgomery counties and Alexandria. There are at least a dozen fire departments and law enforcement agencies throughout the region now involved in the investigation. . . . Some people are responsible for conducting the interviews, others are responsible for processing the crime scenes, and others are responsible for photographing the scenes. We have a very, very skilled group of people assigned to the task force, and the group has been committed to solving the crimes from the beginning.

How many tips, thus far, has the task force investigated, and does that give its members hope and encouragement?

We have continued to receive a great number of tips, with about 1,500 tips received through our tip line -- 301-77-ARSON -- and through e-mail and our P.O. Box. The sheer number of tips continues to encourage us, and we are working through the information we receive.

What can you say to Washington area residents about the efforts and pace of the investigation?

The public should remain as optimistic as we are that these crimes will get solved. We are going to get the suspect.

We are confident in the investigation, and we will close these cases.

What can the citizens do to help the task force and to help catch the serial arsonist?

This is the type of crime where the public plays an important role. We believe some members of the public have seen the suspect. We believe they interact every day with the suspect and don't realize he's the arsonist. The arsonist is skilled at lying, and he's got a chameleon-like personality. . . . The public has to continue to be vigilant. The fires have covered a great distance and so residents, even those who think it won't happen in their neighborhood, need to take the time to look around. If they see things that don't belong, or a strange vehicle parked on their street, or they hear sounds at night that aren't usual, they need to call us. It could be the tip that cracks this case.

Ronald D. Blackwell