PHOENIX -- A luxury home that burned to the ground this week marked the eighth such blaze in the area in three years, a trend investigators suspect is the work of an arsonist with environmental motives.
The fires have occurred at the foot of a desert mountain preserve in north-central Phoenix, where urban sprawl and environmental protection meet face to face. They have all struck large homes that were about half completed, causing more than $4 million in damage.
The most recent fire still is being investigated, but Phoenix Deputy Fire Chief Bob Khan said it fits the profile of the other seven. One house was burned twice.
Investigators have no suspects, and no one has glimpsed the apparent arsonist, though some communication has been left behind.
Scrawled across a sign in April was: "If you build it again, we will burn it again." After an October fire, a typed letter was left at the scene with references to Bible scriptures and warnings against building in the desert.
"It could be a sign that the arsonist -- besides having a mental problem -- could be involved with an environmental group and is seeking his own thrills and has his own agenda," said Don Perkins, a certified fire investigator in San Jose, Calif., and a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators.
The suspected arsonist also has written a promise not to harm individuals or firefighters, a claim Khan calls hollow.
"Fire is inherently unpredictable and dangerous," Khan said. "That makes it dangerous to firefighters and the potential to extend to occupied structures is there."
Environmentalism has been called the motive of other arsons in the West. A group called Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a 1998 fire that caused $12 million damage at the Vail, Colo., ski resort. The group said the fire was set because Vail had expanded into lynx habitat. No arrests have been made.
The group also claimed responsibility for a house fire in Boulder County, Colo., last month.
Some neighbors of burned homes in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve say they don't buy the excuse of environmentalism. Fran Glasper, who lives two houses from the one that burned Wednesday, said the suspected arsonist could do more to harm the desert.
"Big chunks of ash were falling down on our house and in our pool," she said. "He's going to end up burning the whole desert."
What concerns Khan and area residents most is that the fires are becoming more frequent.
"I think he's just getting pleasure out of it now, and he's getting more aggressive," Glasper said. "I'll sure sleep better at night when they catch him."
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Phoenix Fire Department: http://www.phoenixvfd.com/
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