The married couple stood in their front yard in Charles County, arranging the concrete blocks for a new patio, the eventual home for their pink azaleas and ruby red geraniums. Under a Saturday sun, the husband hoisted the blocks while the wife smiled, laughed and said this is going to be a beautiful neighborhood soon.
She misses her rose bushes from the old house in Clinton, but the neighbors here are just so friendly, and oh, yeah, by the way, she's armed.
"We're packing," Evora Swoopes said.
"We took a civilian firearms course," said her husband, Leonard.
Before the arson fires that raged through this Southern Maryland neighborhood six months ago -- a mysterious conflagration that first raised fears of eco-terrorism and then of racial attacks -- the Swoopeses didn't know how to handle a 9mm Glock. They didn't know how to store it and load it, hold it and shoot it. They know now.
"I feel a lot safer," Evora Swoopes said, getting serious. "I feel better prepared."
On Dec. 6, the fires destroyed 12 largely unoccupied Colonial-style houses in the Hunters Brooke development and damaged 15 others. One man, Jeremy D. Parady, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit arson; four others face trial. Parady has said he targeted the houses because many were bought by African Americans. But prosecutors say there could have been more than one motive, including a desire to draw attention to a car club. The men, all white and in their early twenties, have not been charged with hate crimes.
Little physical evidence remains from the fires. Behind a few houses on Cabinwood Court, the scene of the worst damage, the trunks of oak trees are still charred black. At the entrance to the neighborhood, a sign warns of 24-hour video surveillance, and another declares: "This is a fire damaged dangerous area. Structures damaged by fire may fail."
No buyer chose to cancel a purchase contract after the arson, and the demand for houses in Hunters Brooke has not slackened. On the day of the fires, 22 houses were occupied. By last month, 50 families had moved in, and 86 houses were under construction. But no one had moved into the houses burned so badly that they had to be razed and rebuilt. Seventeen families, some in apartments or crowding in with relatives, wait in frustration to begin their new lives in the neighborhood.
Marshall Ames, vice president of Miami-based Lennar Corp., the parent company of developers Patriot Homes and U.S. Homes, said the last of those families will move in by August.
Most days, the muddy streets in Hunters Brooke are tight with pickups and contractor's vans. It sounds like a neighborhood on the mend: Sprinklers skitch-skitch on freshly laid sod; the pneumatic thud of a nail gun can be heard from the rooftops.
On a lawn that is still only mud, Kendall Walker, a manager at PNC Bank in Prince George's County, was planting begonias around a maple sapling, while his 5-year-old daughter, Kendallee, swung from the sticks that held the tree aloft.
"You just put everything in the hands of God," Walker said. "I feel safe. This is going to be a beautiful place to relax."
Sam Hagadorn's home was in the framing stage at the time of the fire. Arsonists broke in and drilled holes through the hardwood floor and down through the ceiling from the second-floor bathroom, a technique that can increase airflow to fan the flames. In a photo taken about a week after the fire, his wife, Young Sook, 34, stood clutching herself in the charred foyer, her face a mask of concern.
"I had just got back from Iraq," said Hagadorn, a geospatial engineer based at Fort Belvoir. "This is something you expect to see in Iraq, but not in my new neighborhood."
When Hagadorn, 35, is at work, Sook home-schools their three young children. After they moved in, it was those hours -- without her husband, in a house flanked by the mud rubble of construction, in a nearly empty neighborhood -- that were the hardest.
"We were really worried," she said. "We looked for other houses."
But they had house-hunted in Virginia for almost a year before they finally found Hunters Brooke; one townhouse in Woodbridge cost $450,000, only slightly less than the price of their four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot house in the woods on the far rim of suburbia. "We couldn't find any houses better than this," Sook said.
For peace of mind, the family installed a monitored security system and three telephone lines, so they can always keep in touch.
One dispute festers. For several years before the fire, environmental activists had fought the subdivision because they feared it would damage Araby Bog. Before ruling it out, investigators initially considered eco-terrorism as a possible motive for the arson.
From her historic manor home near Hunters Brooke, Ellie Cline can hear the rumble of bulldozers clearing the land and believes the community sympathy after the fire made her cause more difficult.
"Araby Bog will never be replaced," said Cline, who is among those challenging the development's permits in a lawsuit. "There will never be an effort to resuscitate the environmental treasure that's being sacrificed for these houses."
Since the fires, a contractor violated environmental rules by allowing muddy water to be pumped from the construction site into the wetland, a tributary of Mattawoman Creek, said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The state attorney general's office will decide on the penalty, which could reach $33,000, he said.
Among neighborhood residents, security remains a priority. At a homeowners meeting in December in Indian Head, residents said they wanted more streetlights in the neighborhood.
After the fires, off-duty sheriff's deputies guarded the community, but they pulled out Feb. 9 at the developer's request. Still, suspicious activity is not ignored in a neighborhood in which a security guard has been accused of being one of the arsonists. Since the fires, one person called the sheriff's office because the door of the Patriot sales office was left open; another reported an open window that didn't look right.
When Cheryl Simon's Pomeranian, Pebbles, disappeared one afternoon, such vigilance was a blessing. Another neighbor saw Simon looking for the dog, and they drove the streets together until they found Pebbles in one of the empty houses.
The houses on either side of Simon's on Viburnum Court were destroyed. The arson attempts didn't fully catch inside her house, but outside, the beige vinyl siding melted from the heat of the neighboring fires. She had already sold her home in Waldorf and had to ask the buyer if he would rent it to her for three months while she waited for repairs.
"It's the initial stress of being packed and ready to go and having to wait for three more months. I had to live with all my boxes," she said. "The first couple months here were rough. Should I move, should I stay? If they hadn't caught the people who did it, I would have moved."
Outside her home, a young couple -- Kevin and Cresta Heltemes of Waldorf -- were being led on a tour of a nearby home.
"Look, Pebbles, more neighbors," Simon said.
She left her living room and walked outside to the cul-de-sac.
"Hi, are you the new neighbors?" she asked. "I'm Cheryl."
"I'm Kevin," Heltemes said. And they shook hands.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.