ECHO LAKE – It could be hours before investigators will be able to begin their search for evidence amid the rubble of three Street of Dream houses gutted by arsons that are being called potential acts of domestic terrorism.
“The scene is hot. It’s still burning. Every time we put it out, it pops back up,” said Kelvin N. Crenshaw, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We don’t know what evidence is there and what evidence is not there.”
The blazes, reported around 4 a.m. today, caused about $7 million in damage to the unoccupied luxury homes.
Three houses were destroyed and two others were damaged.
The arson investigation is spearheaded by the Puget Sound Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of the FBI, ATF, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the Snohomish County Fire Marshal’s Office.
Investigators haven’t yet confirmed the authenticity of a banner signed by the Earth Liberation Front found at the scene, Crenshaw said.
ELF, an environmental extremist group, has claimed responsibility for destroyed houses in Snohomish County in the past. Its Web site on Monday featured news accounts of the arsons, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
At the scene of today’s fires, a sign condemning building practices was found, signed by ELF.
The sign read:
“Built green? Nope. Black.
McMansions in RCDs r not green.
RCD may be a reference to rural cluster developments, a type of project where homes are built close together on rural land while also preserving open space.
Although five homes were burned, additional damage was thwarted.
Explosive devices were found inside the multimillion-dollar show homes, fire officials said. The fire crews discovered the devices inside the houses and were able to remove them, said Fire Chief Rick Eastman of Snohomish County District 7.
The five houses, located on Echo Lake Road south of Monroe, were not occupied. They were part of the 2007 Street of Dreams, a tour of luxury homes in Snohomish and King counties.
One of the people involved in the 2007 Street of Dreams said the homes used “Built Green” standards such as water-pervious sidewalks, super-insulated walls and windows, and products made with recycled materials. 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.
“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. It’s extremely disappointing. I don’t understand the logic in that,” said Doug Barnes, the Northwest division president of Centex Homes in Kirkland and the immediate past president of the Master Builders Association of King &Snohomish Counties. He was a judge at the 2007 Street of Dreams.
The homes that burned were between 4,200 and 4,750 square feet, with prices up to nearly $2 million. None of the five showcase homes from the Street of Dreams last summer had been sold, said Grey Lundberg, a builder of one of the houses.
The houses were to become part of a 48-home subdivision called Quinn’s Crossing, located on part of 115 acres southwest of Monroe.
Neighbors have fought the project because the homes were built on land flanked by wetlands and atop the only drinking water aquifer for the Cross Valley Water District. They feared the housing project will pollute the area’s drinking water.
One house was destroyed and two others were significantly damaged. In all, five homes were either set ablaze or prepped for arson.
“It’s just a shock. It’s sad,” said Lundberg, a Bellevue home builder who found the $2 million home he built destroyed.
Firefighters fought the blazes from outside the homes, wary that the houses could be booby-trapped, a fire official said.
No injuries were reported.
ELF claimed responsibility for arsons that destroyed two new homes and damaged another in Snohomish in 2004. The fires caused about $1 million in damage. There were blazes attempted at several others locations around the county that year, including a development not far from this morning’s fires.
County politicians condemned today’s arsons.
“It’s an extremely serious crime and we need to make sure this kind of thing is not tolerated in the county,” County Council chairman Dave Somers said. “This is the same type of act when they burned down the horticulture center at the University of Washington. It’s absolutely senseless violence and we need to do everything we can to stop it, prevent it and prosecute it.”
The fires are an outrage, County Executive Aaron Reardon said in a statement. He was on a plane to Washington D.C. for a conference and could not be reached for comment.
“There is no excuse for any kind of terrorism, no matter the motivation or political agenda behind it,” Reardon said. “We’re glad no one was injured this morning.”
He said he is pressing for a thorough investigation and full prosecution for those involved
Yarrow Bay Group of Kirkland worked for two years on permitting for Quinn’s Crossing. The developer sued the county in 2006 after the County Council said the project must be spread out over several years.
In April 2007, members of the Echo Paradise Community group living near the project also sued over fears that future pollution might harm wetlands and an underground aquifer. A court settlement in 2007 and approval of the County Council ended the controversy.
The settlement called for greater environmental protections and a way for the developers to build more homes more quickly.
Developers were required to have a second monitoring well to watch for pollution, said Laura Hartman, president of the neighborhood group. Also, future residents of the development were banned from using pesticides and weed killers, a move to protect nearby wetlands. In exchange, builders were given more assurance they’ll be able to build 37 homes sooner than the county previously allowed.
Five homes on the property were scheduled for the 2007 Street of Dreams home tour, each with an asking prices of $1.8 million.
In June 2007, Yarrow Bay development director Colin Lund praised the proposed settlement.
“We believe the result of the efforts of both parties will create a model for environmentally-friendly development on sites with special concerns,” Lund said.
Of 20 Street of Dreams exhibitions held since 1984, Quinn’s Crossing was the second in Snohomish County. The first was in 1993 at the Echo Falls Country Club.
The “built green” theme of the Quinn’s Crossing project featured smaller houses — about 4,000 to 4,750 square feet — compared with the 8,000- to 11,000-square-foot homes in 2006, Street of Dreams president and founder John Heller said
Eric Olsen, 21, dropped by the arson scene this morning. He said he grew up in the area and used to play in the swampy area where the homes were built.
“It sure upset me because I live downstream from it,” he said, adding that he hopes the destruction will discourage more building in the area.
Raina Laako, 19, and her mother Esta Crepps, 40, live in the area
“It was unreal. It was totally my street,” Lakko said. “.. It’s crazy, like unbelievable. I didn’t believe it at first.”
Crepps said the arsons likely caused more environmental havoc than the housing development. If the motive proves an attempt to protect the earth, the method was misguided, she said.
“They should have hugged a tree before they blew it up,” Crepps said.
Associated Press contributed to this report