Arson suspected in mass blaze

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“I woke up to a smell, like a barbecue smell,” he said.

He woke up his parents and two siblings, ages 10 and 3, and they rushed out of their home.

“As we got up, we could see fire everywhere,” Antoine said.

Antoine’s father, Derrick, and mother, Terri Rookard, drove the children to safety, passing by dozens of burning houses.

“There were flames everywhere, and ashes were raining,” Mr. Potts said.

Jacque Hightower was one of the people looking forward to moving into a new home in the subdivision.

“We were going to settlement in about two days, and we woke up this morning and looked at the news, and my wife just screamed, ‘Our house is on fire,’ so I just came down today to try to find out what’s going on,” Mr. Hightower told WRC-TV (Channel 4).

Developers had hired a security company to protect the houses, but residents said the security officers left the area at about 4 a.m.

In addition to the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting local authorities in their investigation. An estimated 30 investigators were on the scene throughout the day.

The number of homes and the distance between the homes prompted speculation that the fires might have been intentionally set as an act of ecoterrorism.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and a citizens group opposed the Hunters Brooke development and another subdivision because of their proximity to the Araby Bog, a 50-acre magnolia bog.

Magnolia bogs are wetland areas that provide a unique environment for plants and animals, and the Araby Bog is one of the largest and most pristine bogs in the mid-Atlantic region, conservationists said.

The Sierra Club said yesterday it condemned “all acts of violence in the name of the environment.”

“The perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Bruce Hamilton, the group’s conservation director. “That type of criminal behavior does nothing to further the cause of promoting safe and livable communities.”

In recent years, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a loosely structured group that opposes commercialism and industry in the name of preserving the environment, has taken responsibility for many similar incidents nationwide.

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