ATLANTA -- Ashley Archibald was riding the school bus early yesterday when she saw smoke billowing from the doors and windows of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in rural Boligee, Ala.
The small, white wood-frame church was one of four Baptist churches in western Alabama that were set on fire early yesterday - less than a week after suspicious fires damaged five churches in central Alabama.
"All we could see was smoke," said Archibald, 16. "That's the church I've been to my whole life. I sung in the choir. Now there's nothing left."
Three of the four churches that were set on fire were destroyed. The fires took place at churches off rural roads and were 10 to 20 miles apart. The fires were set in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where five churches were burned Friday.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Response Team has deployed 50 special agents to Alabama to investigate the fires, an official said.
The FBI, which has more than 10 agents in Alabama investigating the fires, is investigating the blazes as civil rights violations.
"We're looking at both sets of fires," said Raymond Zicarelli, special agent in the Birmingham FBI office. "We don't know if there is a link. At this point it's too early to draw conclusions."
While all of the churches that burned yesterday had predominantly black congregations, four of the five that burned Friday had mostly white members.
"I don't see any evidence that these fires are hate crimes," said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who said the churches appeared to be racially diverse. "Anti-Christian crimes are exceedingly rare in the South. It's more likely to be teenagers or a mentally ill person."
Early yesterday, news of the fires spread quickly through the small rural communities on the border of Alabama and Mississippi. The area is known as Alabama's Black Belt because of its dark, rich soil and poor, African-American population.
"We're scared," said Mary Britton, 34, an employee at North Sumter Day Care Center, about four miles from Dancy First Baptist Church, which was destroyed. "It's horrible to know there is stuff like that in a person's heart."
Three churches - Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee, Galilee Baptist Church in Panola and Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville - were destroyed. A fourth, Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle, was damaged.
Rural churches with predominantly black congregations were set on fire in Alabama and across the nation throughout the 1990s. In Greene County, where Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church was burned yesterday, the BATF investigated three other fires in 1995 and 1996.
In 1996, the federal Church Arson Prevention Act - which prohibits anyone from intentionally defacing, damaging or destroying religious property - was signed into law.
In 2001, Jay Scott Ballinger, an Indiana man who called himself a missionary of Lucifer, was sentenced to life in prison after burning 26 churches in eight states, including Alabama, over a five-year period that ended in 1999.
State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered for the first set of fires.
Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.