March 3, 2008 — -- Federal authorities strongly suspect that the Earth Liberation Front is responsible for a series of fires that have destroyed four multi-million dollar show homes in a suburb north of Seattle, sources told ABC News.
Officials said the fires are being investigated as acts of domestic terror, but they cautioned that it's too early in the investigation to make any solid determinations. The blazes began before dawn Monday and were still smoldering by late morning. The homes were unoccupied and no injuries have been reported, officials said.
The fires are suspicious because they began at multiple locations in several houses, Snohomish County district seven Fire Chief Rick Eastman told the Associated Press.
A spray-painted sign with the initials of the group was found at the scene. It appeared to mock claims that the new homes were environmentally friendly, the AP reported Monday.
"Built Green? Nope black!,'' reads the sign in an image first aired on KING-TV.
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is an underground group of loosely organized, radical environmentalists who have been responsible for hundreds of arsons and other acts of sabotage in the Pacific Northwest over the past two decades.
Agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and local officials swarmed the area to investigate the fires.
The target of the potential arson attacks was a string of luxury homes known as "The Street of Dreams,'' being showcased for an annual event in which developers construct high-end houses which are then decorated by local designers and lushly landscaped by local firms. Thousands of Washington residents pay to tour the homes.
The subdivision was built near the headwaters of Bear Creek, home to the endangered chinook salmon, the Tacoma News Tribune reported. Opponents of the development had argued that the subdivision could pollute Bear Creek and endanger the fish. There were also concerns about some nearby wetlands.
Over the past couple of years, the F.B.I. has been warning that ELF and other environmental "terror" groups — including the Animal Liberation Front and the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign — posed a growing threat to the public.
The cumulative impact of the so-called animal rights activism and eco-terror of ELF and ALF is considerable, federal officials told ABC News.
Between 1990 and 2004, the two groups were responsible for more than 1,200 incidents involving tens of millions of dollars, officials said. A 1998 arson fire at a Vail, Colo. ski resort did $12 million worth of damage.
In 1999, power lines in Oregon were sabotaged, and attacks have also been launched in Utah, Virginia, California and Wyoming. In a 2005 report, FBI officials said that these domestic terror attacks were growing in "frequency and size" and that there were at least 150 investigations under way nationally.
One of the most notorious so-called eco-terror attacks in recent history was an arson fire at the University of Washington in 2001. Briana Waters, a 32-year old violin teacher, is currently on trial in Tacoma for that suspected arson. She is accused of serving as a lookout while her friends planted a fire bomb, according to the AP.
She reportedly testified that she had nothing to do with the arson. No one was hurt in that blaze, but the school's Center for Urban Horticulture was ruined. The rebuilding effort cost $7 million. Waters faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
Authorities say the center was targeted because ELF members mistakenly believed researchers there were genetically altering trees.