Arson suspected in mass blaze

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INDIAN HEAD, Md. — More than 40 expensive houses under construction in Charles County were burned early yesterday in a development that has drawn criticism from environmentalists because it is next to a nature preserve.

Arson is suspected in at least four of the 41 blazes, a state fire official said. The houses, 12 of which were destroyed, were priced at $400,000 to $500,000.

Ecoterrorism is one of the motives that would be investigated, said Joe Parris, a spokesman for the FBI, which joined the investigation last night.

“From what you can see, it would appear that way, but we’re not ready to start pointing the finger yet,” Mr. Parris said. “Right now, it’s a local investigation, and the FBI is not willing to speculate into individuals or groups that might be responsible.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

No injuries were reported in the fires in the Hunters Brooke development off Route 225, next to the state’s Mattawoman Natural Environment Area.

Damage was estimated at at least $10 million. If the fires are deemed to be acts of ecoterrorism, it will be one of the most expensive known acts of ecoterrorism in the United States.

Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor refused to disclose what led investigators to suspect arson in four of the fires.

“At this point, our knowledge of the methodology is shared by us and the perpetrator, and we don’t want to share that with anyone else,” he said. “We’re not going to tip our hand.”

The blazes were reported before 5 a.m., drawing more than 100 firefighters from Charles, Prince George’s, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties to the 319-unit subdivision about 25 miles south of the District.

The houses, on lots of about a quarter-acre each, were spread across a 10-acre area, Marshal Taylor said.

“This was a very, very affluent neighborhood under construction,” he said. “I have never in 20 years seen the magnitude of destruction that I have seen today.”

The houses were in varying stages of development, and the subdivision was largely unoccupied. A few houses were completed, while wooden frames were just erected on others.

Only a few houses were occupied, but none of those was burned down. The occupants escaped the area unharmed.

Antoine Potts, 14, who lived in one of the few occupied houses, first detected the fires burning two houses away.

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