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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Activist group claims responsibility for fires

Times Snohomish County bureau

An environmental activist group known for using violence and arson has claimed credit for three house fires Tuesday in a Snohomish County neighborhood.

Press officers with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), considered a domestic terrorist group by federal officials, say Tuesday's fires at Lobo Ridge and attempted arsons at two other neighborhoods are most likely the actions of individual ELF members.

An e-mail from the ELF press office suggests there is no one standard for how its cells communicate, but the note indicates a message left at one of the sites should be assumed to be a legitimate message from an ELF member.

"Although the ELF Press Office has received no communications about these actions from the persons responsible, a note found at the site of one of the fires was signed 'ELF' and reportedly contained statements condemning suburban developments. In the absence of other information, this note does indicate a claim of responsibility for the fires and fire attempts by ELF activists," the statement read.

Typically, ELF actions contain high-profile banners or messages containing "ELF." A message found at the Cedars Crossing neighborhood mentioned ELF on the back of a newspaper page with Associated Press articles about the use of old-growth timber.

A separate e-mail sent to The Seattle Times by the ELF press office said not all ELF actions use banners or the press office to communicate actions to the media and law enforcement.

Federal officials have said they suspect ELF involvement on the basis of the note found, but at this point no suspects have been pinpointed.

ELF's claim is the first linking all three incidents. Local law enforcement has said it suspected the three incidents were related, but federal officials said they had not determined a link yet.

Local and federal law-enforcement officials are investigating arsons Tuesday that destroyed two homes and damaged a third in a Snohomish-area housing development, causing about $1 million damage. ELF is known for targeting areas where growth has moved at a rapid pace, including last year's fire at a five-story apartment complex under construction in San Diego that caused $50 million in damage.

Because of increased growth in Snohomish County, environmentalists say they are not surprised by the arsons.

Snohomish County is the second-fastest-growing county in Washington, based on 1990 and 2000 census figures, and development of single-family homes has remained steady since 1998, say county planning officials. The demand for agricultural and forested land to turn into new homes hasn't subsided.

"When you look at straight population numbers, we're only behind King County in terms of overall growth," said Tim Koss, a senior planner/demographer in Snohomish County's planning department.

Since 1998, between 2,000 and 2,500 single-family homes have been built each year in the county's unincorporated areas, including land previously covered by trees. "We are concerned that growth management and the protection of the environment is not being taken seriously by the Snohomish County Council," said John Healy, a spokesman for 1000 Friends of Washington, an environmental group that has contested several County Council development decisions.

"But we will go out of our way to denounce anybody who takes the environmental fight outside of legal action," Healy said.

For years, environmentalists in the region have worked to protect sensitive areas, to stop old-growth timber sales and to create building codes utilizing smart-growth measures.

The Sierra Club, which has worked to protect timber in the region, said the fires are not connected to environmental protection.

"What's happened in Snohomish County is not an ecological statement but a criminal act," said Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club's deputy national field director.

"These (fires) are fairly pathetic gestures, but they get linked in the public's eye in the same breath with groups like the Sierra Club," said Daniel Glick, a former Newsweek reporter who wrote extensively on the ELF in his book "Powder Burn." The book chronicles the 1998 fire attributed to the ELF that destroyed a $12 million, 12,000-square-foot lodge made of old-growth Douglas fir in Vail, Colo.

"Unfortunately, these acts do nothing to advance the cause of environmental protection," Glick said.

He said he would not be surprised if new housing development in Snohomish County has attracted the attention of groups opposed to development.

"Any area of tremendous growth with trophy homes or symbolic of an overgrown development ethic — that's something similar to what the ELF posts on its Web site — I can imagine that would be something they could be drawn to," Glick said.

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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