INDIAN HEAD - Arson is blamed for at least some of the fires that swept through a development of high-priced homes before dawn in Southern Maryland yesterday, destroying a dozen houses under construction and damaging 29 others.
Hunters Brooke, with homes priced from $400,000 to $500,000, had been the focus of a fierce environmental dispute and now is the site of one of the worst residential fires in Maryland history. Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor estimated the damage as at least $10 million.
Agents from the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the probe.
"I have never in my 20 years seen the magnitude of destruction that has occurred here in Charles County today," Taylor said.
Investigators determined that arson caused the fires in the first four houses they examined, Taylor said, and the painstaking task of investigating the others was continuing under floodlights last night.
He said the most common cause of arson has been found to be juvenile vandalism, followed by acts of "spite or revenge." The investigation will look at all possibilities - including that the fires could have been an act of eco-terrorism, Taylor said.
"We're still a long way off from trying to determine what the motive of the individual was," he said.
The smell of burned wood hung heavy over the scene yesterday. Melted vinyl siding draped off fire-damaged houses like ribbon. Back yards were strewn with scorched appliances, piles of insulation and smoldering lumber. Other houses were burned to the ground, with only brick front columns standing.
Many nearby residents had fiercely opposed the construction of 300 homes on quarter-acre lots at the site. The houses that were destroyed or damaged yesterday were all in a new section at the rear of the development, about a mile off Route 225.
Only one of the houses in the affected area was known to be occupied, in the 5000 block of Deer Point Court. Terri Rookard said she and her three children, and boyfriend Derrick Potts, had just moved into the house from Fort Washington on Thursday.
"My oldest son woke us up at a quarter to six and said there was a fire across the street," said Rookard, who works as a program manager at the State Department in Washington. As she went to another bedroom to wake up her youngest son, she looked out a window and saw a second house on fire.
"That's when we panicked," Rookard said.
'It was a nightmare'
Driving out of the development, they could see fires burning all around them. "It was a nightmare," she said.
Potts, a police officer in the District of Columbia and the father of Rookard's youngest child, described the scene: "It was raining ashes ... falling on the hoods of cars. You just heard the popping and crackling of the wood."
The family planned to spend the night at a hotel.
About 20 houses in the first section of Hunters Brooke were believed to be occupied, but those residents were being kept away from their homes late yesterday afternoon.
Dozens more who had signed contracts to buy their houses and planned to move in within the coming weeks were frantically trying to find out if their homes were still standing.
Residents await word
Some like Jacque Hightower resorted to watching aerial footage taken by television news crews, trying to see if they could spot their houses.
"We know absolutely nothing," said Hightower, who had planned to move with his wife and two children into their new home tomorrow.
Another homeowner, Erik Smith, left work and stood out in the cold for three hours trying to get more information. "You're talking about the biggest investment of your life," he said.
Those home buyers and a handful of others who had moved into the first section of the subdivision were kept away from the scene yesterday.
"We understand the angst that people are feeling about their homes," said Taylor, the deputy fire marshal. But, he said, investigators have to make sure any evidence is properly collected.
The dispute over the development has led to speculation that so-called eco-terrorists might have set the fires.
A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League on eco-terrorism said that radical environmental and animal rights groups have claimed responsibility for hundreds of acts of arson and vandalism causing more than $100 million in damage nationally over the last 20 years.
The organizations - the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front - tend to target disputed properties, such as housing developments, auto dealerships and animal labs, instead of people, according to the report, "Ecoterrorism: Extremism in the Animal Rights and Environmental Movements."
Leaders of a citizens' group that has fought in court to stop the Hunters Brooke project and an adjacent sister development, Falcon Ridge, said yesterday they were shocked by news of the fires.
Ellie Cline, a resident of nearby Mason Springs, said the group - Save Araby, Mattawoman and Mason Springs - has been fighting its battles through legal and political channels and that its members would not resort to illegal acts.
"The people from the group I've talked to are all pretty much in shock," she said. "They find it hard to believe that this is happening. ... In no way would anyone in our group do anything like this."
Those who oppose the housing developments have argued that they will destroy an environmentally sensitive wetland nearby that is known as Araby Bog.
Cline said many nearby homeowners are concerned that higher-density housing developments on small lots in the area will destroy their quality of life.
"This is like inserting a small city into a rural area," she said.
More than 100 firefighters from several surrounding counties in the region responded to the four-alarm blaze, which was brought under control shortly after noon.
Taylor said about 30 investigators from the region, including agents from the FBI and ATF are assisting with the probe.