Dennis Raschka was driving home from his job in Washington when his 18-year-old daughter called to tell him that the deck in the back of their Columbia townhouse was on fire. He did not race home, assuming the blaze was minor.
By the time he arrived, his attic floor had collapsed and Howard County firefighters had knocked out third-floor windows with axes and pitched outside many of his family's keepsakes that were stored there.
His daughters' baby clothes, a wristwatch that was his father's sole heirloom, and the collection of glass Christmas ornaments that he and his wife had planned to pass on to their three daughters were either incinerated or thrown onto the lawn.
Howard County police said last week that two boys younger than 13 were playing with matches near the Raschkas' backyard shed and started the Feb. 8 fire in the 7100 block of Winter Rose Path. Police have made no arrests, but the incident remains under investigation.
"When I was about a quarter of a mile from home, I saw three helicopters hovering over my neighborhood," said Raschka, 58. "I thought, uh-oh. This is more than just a small fire."
Flames leaping from the shed caught the deck on fire and then ran up the back of the townhouse to the roof.
The fire traveled across the roofline to two adjacent townhouses, causing $1 million in damage, the fire department said.
All three townhouses in the Elkhorn Landing neighborhood have red signs stapled to doorframes warning residents that they are uninhabitable. But one family, who declined to be named, has returned. Another family is living in a hotel. The Raschkas have found an apartment in Columbia.
"My two daughters who live in Columbus, Ohio flew in because this was the only house they knew," said Raschka, as cleaners carried the few belongings left in the house to a moving truck parked out front. "It was important to them to see what happened."
Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said that she could not release more details about the cause of the blaze, but Raschka said that the police learned about the two boys playing with matches from two girls who watched the home burn while standing next to Raschka's wife, Vicki.
"The two girls were listening to my wife as she talked to a neighbor, and the girls told them that they heard this boy and his brother talking about playing with fire in the woods," Raschka said. "Apparently, they lit a T-shirt on fire and then threw it on top of the shed."
On Thursday, melting snow dripped through the cracks in the charred deck. Windows on the third-story were boarded up. A linoleum floor was ruined. All that was left in the Raschkas' living room was a large, soiled white couch and wooden dinning room table, waiting to be hauled off for a cleaning.
The shed was reduced to ashes, and the Raschka's front lawn looked like a trash heap. A television set, fan, summer clothes and other contents from the attic that the firefighters threw out the window poked through the melting snow.
Firefighters also had to rip almost all of the drywall in the rear half of the home from the walls to check for hotspots, and Raschka praised them for moving as many possessions as they could into the center of the rooms and covering them with tarps, sparing many valuables.
Despite the loss, Raschka was upbeat. He said that this was not the worst thing that has happened to him - a car accident 15 years ago forced him to spend four months in the hospital and undergo multiple surgeries.
He also said that his employer, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Northfield Elementary, where his wife works, have been supportive.
"We have a support system and insurance," Raschka said. "I feel worse for Hurricane Katrina victims. They have no support, no insurance. Where do people like that turn?"
Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.