Arsonists have left a charred trail through eight buildings in a 15-block stretch along the congested Rte. 1 corridor near Groveton in the past two weeks, according to fire officials.The targets: dilapidated frame houses, vacant businesses, an adult book store and an apartment clubhouse.
A ninth blaze that swept through a sprawling apartment complex in the same neighborhood Saturday night, causing $600,000 in damages and leaving 32 families homeless, also is being investigated for arson, fire department officials said.
It is the worst arson blitz in Fairfax County in the past several months, according to Lt. Wayne Logan, chief of investigations for the county fire department.
Investigators believe several of the fires are related, said Logan. Others may be isolated incidents, located coincidentally in the area, he said.
A 24-year-old man, William Edward Weary, of 8600 Fort Hunt Rd., has been charged with arson in the first fire of the blitz, a blaze that caused $10,000 damage July 29 to a vacant commercial building at 6600 Sacramento Dr.
Fire officials say they are continuing the investigation of the other incidents.
Half of the arson targets have been abandoned buildings: eyesores in the commercial clutter of post-World War II businesses that line the Groveton stretch of Rte. 1. Others have been commercial shops jammed in the same asphalt and neon setting.
An investigator at one arson site last week -- a vacant house sitting in a yard of brambles and weeds -- jokingly referred to the rash of fires as "our urban renewal plan."
But Logan said the problem is more serious. "It's not just the old buildings we have to worry about. There could be people, vagrants perhaps, inside those structures when they're set on fire. People don't realize the consequences of setting these kinds of fires."
Logan said investigators ruled out insurance fraud as a motive for fires in the vacant buildings because most of the buildings were not insured.
The blitz began July 29 at the Sacramento Drive building, when a fire was reported about midnight. Less than five hours later an abandoned house hidden by a tangle of bushes less than five blocks away at 8409 Richmond Hwy. was engulfed in flames.
Later the same day, Penguin Feather Tapes and Records at 7116 Richmond Hwy. received $500 damage from a fire that was started started behind the yellow wood-frame shop. Logan said juveniles are suspected of setting that fire.
The next target: a weather-beaten abandoned building at 7519 Richmond Hwy. Old carpets were piled in the center of the building and set on fire, according to investigators.
The scene the next day was a poolside clubhouse at an apartment complex in the 7100 block of Groveton Gardens Road, five blocks off Rte. 1. Again, fire officials suspect juveniles in that blaze.
On Aug. 6 a garage at the rear of a modest house at 8598 Richmond Hwy. was set ablaze, causing $1,250 damage. Arson investigators said they have traced a possible adult suspect in that case.
A block away that same day the Show Place Adult Book Store was hit. Arsonists lit a pile of boards and trash at the rear of the store.
The cardboard sign tacked to the porch of a ramshackle house at 8423 Richmond Hwy. reads, "This building is unsafe and its use or occupancy has been prohibited." That was posted even before the Aug. 11 blaze that gutted the roof of the faded green building.
The most recent and most serious fire occurred Saturday night at Southern Manor Apartments within blocks of the apartment clubhouse and record shop fires. The blaze left 32 families homeless in the 700-unit complex.
The fire has been classified as "definitely of a suspicious nature" by Fairfax County Fire Department Capt. John Sullivan. Preliminary investigations have not linked the apartment blaze to other arsons in the area, a department spokesman said.
Until the Southern Manor Apartments fire, local merchants and residents seemed relatively unconcerned about the rash of arsons, Logan said.
"Most of the fires had affected few of the neighbors and hadn't caused too much damage," Logan said.