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Originally published March 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 3, 2008 at 10:34 PM

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Suspicious fires destroy 3 Street of Dreams homes, damage 1, in Snohomish County

Officials are blaming "domestic terrorism" for fires early today that destroyed three multi-million-dollar homes and damaged two others built as part of last year's Seattle Street of Dreams in the Maltby area of Snohomish County. Explosive devices were f

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Officials are blaming "domestic terrorism" for fires early today that destroyed three multi-million-dollar homes and damaged a fourth which were built as part of last year's Seattle Street of Dreams in the Maltby area of Snohomish County.

Damage was estimated at $7 million.

Early reports indicated that explosive devices were found inside the homes. And nearby, a spray-painted sign bearing the initials of the Earth Liberation Front, challenged builders' assertion that the homes featured environmentally responsible construction methods.

A KING-5 video showed the sign, which read: "Built Green? Nope black! McMansions in RCDs r not green. ELF" The initials "RCD" refers to "rural cluster development."

Investigators are looking at the possibility that attempts were made to start a fifth house on fire.

The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for other arsons, including one at the University of Washington in 2001 for which a woman is now on trial in Tacoma.

The fires were reported at 4 a.m. and more than five hours later flames were still rising from a natural-gas pipeline which crews from Puget Sound Energy were working to control.

The damaged homes, all unoccupied, were included among Seattle Street of Dreams homes in the Quinn's Crossing development near Highway 522. The homes that burned were between 4,200 and 4,750 square feet in size, with prices up to nearly $2 million.

The Seattle Street of Dreams is a 30-year-old home-building home tour, intended to show luxury home-building and trends in architecture, interior design, home technology and landscaping. The destroyed homes were featured last June.

No injuries were reported in the three-alarm fire. A terrorism task force which includes police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating. Investigators stopped short of blaming the ELF for today's fires, but acknowledged finding the sign with the group's initials.

The devastation was a blow to the owners of the properties, which are on the market.

"It's sad. It's just a shock. I don't know what to tell you," said Grey Lundberg of CMI Homes, based in Bellevue, as he looked at the smoking remains of an award-winning home built by his company.

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Lundberg said he and other developers at the site had worked hard to build homes that were as environmentally friendly as possible, filled with such features as high-efficiency insulation and recycled materials.

He noted his company recently received an award from the National Association of Homebuilders for its "green," or environmental, qualities and the overall quality of the construction.

"We're just trying to make a statement that we can do better," he said. "It's just really sad."

Lundberg said his company's home was about 4,000 square feet and was for sale for about $2 million. Five homes were in the development, and all of them were of similar size and price, he added.

Lundberg said the homes had video-surveillance systems, but the one at his property had been turned off, since it was felt it wasn't necessary.

John Heller, president of Seattle Street of Dreams, was out of town this morning, but was in touch with fire officials. In a statement to the news media, Heller said, "We are stunned by this event, and we thank God that each of the homes were unoccupied and that there were no apparent injuries."

By this afternoon, the fires were largely controlled, but clouds of smoke continued to rise hundreds of feet into the sky.

Teams of investigators arrived throughout the day, including agents in jackets with "JTTF" emblazoned on the back, for Joint Terrorism Task Force. Arson-detecting dogs, able to smell traces of possible accelerants used to set blazes, were also brought in.

While releasing few details, officials confirmed that the fires were intentionally set.

Fire Chief Rick Eastman of Snohomish County Fire District 7, who was with the first units to arrive at the scene about 4:50 a.m., said one house was found fully burning, and three more began burning shortly afterward, with flames rising "probably 100 feet into the air."

Fire crews were hampered by problems with water pressure on the rural water system serving the community, he added.

Eastman said he couldn't talk about whether the sequence indicated the blazes were set to begin at different times, or how they might have been activated, such as by a timer or a remote-control device. "One had a little more of a head start than the others," he said.

"We got one out real quick," he added, with damage confined to smoke effects, but three other houses were destroyed.

Eastman said firefighters worked to prevent the blazes from spreading, but crews were kept from trying to enter the burning structures themselves, partly because of concerns there might have been booby-traps left behind by arsonists.

The Quinn's Crossing project had drawn opposition from neighbors who said its septic systems could damage critical wetlands needed to protect an aquifer used by about 20,000 people in the area and could harm streams used by chinook salmon. The Snohomish County Council approved the project in March 2007.

The luxury homes were built using septic systems with drain fields ending near these critical areas. Residents said the natural system would be overloaded by the septic arrangement. They also feared the system would further endanger chinook salmon.

Open houses had been held at the development throughout the winter, he said, without incident, although none of the properties had sold. One house did have a pending-sale offer, Lundberg said.

FBI officials say the most recent arson in the region claimed by the ELF took place on Camano Island in January 2006. A luxury home under construction was burned and a pink-dyed sheet with a spray-painted message — which investigators would not reveal — was left at the front gate of the property.

That incident and a string of Snohomish County arsons and attempted fires set to new unoccupied homes in 2004, is still under investigation said FBI spokesman Frederick Gutt. Part of the challenge is that ELF is "not really an organization," he said.

"It's a leaderless ideology," Gutt said. "Unlike traditional organized crime, it's a different animal. So anyone inspired by their message who commits violence against people or property . . . that's an ELF act."

Today's arsons came as a federal jury in Tacoma resumed deliberations in the arson trial of Briana Waters of Oakland, Calif., who is accused of helping set a fire at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001. Prosecutors say the ELF claimed responsibility for the fire because it believed, mistakenly, the center was genetically engineering poplar trees.

Members of ELF and a similar organization, the Animal Liberation Front, have been linked to politically motivated arson and sabotage around the Western U.S. Between 1996 and 2001, attacks caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to targets included a slaughterhouse, timber-company headquarters and a ski lodge at Vail, Colo.

Waters, 32, testified she had nothing to do with the U.W. arson. If convicted she faces 35 years in prison.

Defense attorneys in Waters' trial asked a judge this morning to declare a mistrial, claiming jurors could have been influenced by the news of the fires in Maltby. But the judge, after speaking with jurors, denied the request.

"This is a major story... it's so large, so pervasive that the jurors could not have heard about it and not been impacted by it," said defense attorney Robert Bloom. "We really are dealing with a major event here."

A neighbor of the houses which burned today, Kim Quenzer, could see the fire from her home, which overlooks the site. She said she and her husband suspected the ELF when they saw the magnitude of the flames.

"We worried about that when we built this place," she said of her home, because similar arson acts had been claimed by the ELF. "You just wonder what they're thinking," Quenzer added. "They're not helping their cause."

Another neighbor Joan Pinney, said she heard multiple explosions when she was in bed. When she got up and looked out her living-room window, she saw flames.

"It's creepy to think that people like that would be out so close to our place," she said.

One judge in the 2007 Seattle Street of Dreams event said the homes used Built Green standards such as water-pervious sidewalks, super-insulated walls and windows and products made with recycled materials, such carpet pads.

"It's very disappointing to take a situation where we're tying to promote good building practices — Built Green practices — and that it's destroyed ... I don't understand the logic in that," said Doug Barnes, immediate past president of the Master Builders Association of King & Snohomish Counties.

Advertising for last summer's Street of Dreams show focused on the environmentally friendly aspects of the homes, which were smaller than some of the huge houses featured in years past.

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sonia Krishnan, Jack Broom, Amy Roe and Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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