A dozen empty houses in a new Maryland subdivision that is the focus of a long-running environmental dispute were destroyed and numerous others were damaged yesterday in what officials said were more than 20 coordinated, methodically planned arsons.
No one was hurt, but the attack left the Hunters Brooke subdivision, near Indian Head in Charles County, scarred with blackened, gutted houses and terrified residents in the quiet community near the Potomac River about 25 miles downstream from the District.
Firefighters battle one of the blazes, which left blackened, gutted houses in the subdivision. Investigators found evidence that an accelerant was used.
(James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
Md. Arson: Ten homes were destroyed and 16 damaged, resulting in an estimated $10 million in destruction to the new subdivision.
Charles County Fire
A preliminary investigation found traces of a fire-starting accelerant in four houses that were the first to be examined by investigators, officials said. Damage was estimated at $10 million, and William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal, said it was the biggest arson in state history. In addition to the 12 homes destroyed, about 30 were damaged, authorities said.
Investigators said more than 20 fires were set. Some houses were burned to the ground, and the second floors and roofs of others were burned out. The structures seemed to have been targeted at random, investigators said, with some houses spared while others nearby were destroyed.
Investigators said the fires were confined to the unoccupied section of the development, away from homes where people live. About 70 houses had been finished or were under construction in the subdivision, and 319 more were planned, the developer said.
For the past five years, two subdivisions in the area, Hunters Brooke and the yet-to-be-built Falcon Ridge, have been a source of fierce opposition from environmental groups, which have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers for allowing houses to be built in the area.
Environmentalists assert that the houses will damage Araby Bog, a 6.5-acre wetlands area that is home to endangered insects and such rare plants as the halberd-leaved greenbrier and red milkweed. The bog filters rain and upwelling waters that feed into the nearby Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac.
Scores of investigators from county, state and federal agencies were on the scene or headed there yesterday, including a 15-member "national response team" from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives made up of chemists, interviewers, schematic artists, fire cause-and-origin experts and other specialists.
An ATF spokesman, Mike Campbell, said an anti-terrorism task force of local and federal investigators was called to the scene to explore whether the fires were set by radical environmentalists.
Environmental extremists have claimed responsibility for similar attacks elsewhere, often through online postings or messages left at the scene. Federal authorities classify such extremists as domestic terrorists. No such claim had been asserted as of yesterday afternoon, said Theresa R. Stoop, special agent in charge of the ATF's Baltimore office.
Jonathan Tepper, sales and marketing manager for the D.C. division of Lennar Corp., the builder for the development, said he did not believe the fires were set by anyone opposed to the environmental impact.
"Our concern about this whole thing is the families," Tepper said. "Several of them had bought homes as Christmas presents for their families."
Terri Rookard, who had moved to Hunters Brooke four days earlier, said she was awakened before dawn when her eldest son burst into her room saying that he smelled smoke. She looked out her window and saw flames pouring out of a nearby home. More fire was visible through another window.
"Then we just panicked," said Rookard, 35. "We couldn't tell what was going on. It was a nightmare. We were trying to get out, and there was fire everywhere."