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Eco-Terrorism Suspected as Fire Levels Construction Site

A radical group's initials are found on a banner nearby after a $20-million blaze destroys an apartment project in San Diego.

August 02, 2003|Julie Cart and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — A suspicious fire that tore through a construction site early Friday, destroying the wood skeleton of a five-story apartment complex, may have been set by an underground group that claims to combat urban sprawl, authorities said.

San Diego officials called in the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to assist in the investigation after they discovered a banner nearby reading, "If you build it, we will burn it," with the initials "ELF."

The initials are presumed to stand for Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that has taken responsibility for torching development projects, sport utility vehicles, ski lifts and genetic engineering labs across the nation.

"We're still investigating what this banner or boasting means," Capt. Jeff Carle of the San Diego Fire Department's Metro Arson Strike Team said at an afternoon news conference.

The Times sent an e-mail to ELF's Web site seeking comment Friday, and received the following response:

"The ELF press office has received no communique for the ... San Diego fire that took place Aug. 1, 2003, and thus cannot answer any questions as to why this location and city was chosen for the latest ELF action. The banner at the site reading 'You build it -- we burn it -- ELF' is a legitimate claim of responsibility by the Earth Liberation Front."

The fire in the city's upscale University Town Centre district near UC San Diego caused no injuries, but sent flames 100 feet into the air. More than 400 residents of apartments nearby were evacuated. The sprawling construction site covered nearly 34 acres and was to include 1,500 apartment units.

Officials estimate the blaze caused $20 million in damage and burned with such intensity that it blew out glass panes and melted window shades in apartments blocks away.

The construction site is in northern San Diego's so-called Golden Triangle, one of the region's faster-growing areas. Suspicions that the fire might have been set by an eco-terrorist group rattled city officials and nearby building owners, who said they were beefing up security as a result.

"This is an outrage," said Councilman Scott Peters. "When a group puts lives and property in jeopardy, they are not activists, they are criminals."

On its Web site, ELF describes itself as "an international underground organization that uses direct action in the form of economic sabotage to stop the destruction of the natural environment."

The site also includes downloadable manuals on setting fires and maintaining security among "cells" -- loosely organized groups that do not operate under a centralized authority. The group claims to have caused $50 million in damage in dozens of fires and other acts of sabotage since 1997.

The group has claimed responsibility for the firebombings of numerous SUVs at a Pennsylvania auto dealership in January, the 1998 torching of four ski lifts and outbuildings at a Vail ski resort in Colorado and the destruction of $2 million worth of luxury homes on Long Island three years ago.

The FBI's San Diego office dispatched its evidence response team, whose two dozen members will comb the scene for evidence over the next few days. Late Friday, the site was too hot for investigators to begin work.

FBI spokesman Jan Caldwell said he was familiar with ELF, but was not certain its members had been involved.

"This is a blank investigative canvas," Caldwell said. "Until agents get on the scene, we just won't know."

Caldwell said the banner had been taken into evidence.

The project is under development by Garden Communities, Southern California's second- largest apartment developer behind the Irvine Co., according to M/PF Research, a firm that analyzes apartment development.

Officials at Garden Communities could not be reached for comment Friday, but authorities said the firm had not received threats before the fire.

Arson investigators said that, if the fire had been set intentionally, it had been done when the construction site was most flammable.

"The amount of wood just fed the fire," said Virgil Hathaway, chief of the San Diego Fire Department's Battalion 5 and the fire's incident commander.

Fire crews were hampered by a lack of water -- there was only one fire hydrant in the construction area -- and the site's dirt roads that were impassable for the heavy fire trucks.

"It was extremely hot and difficult to get into," Hathaway said. "The radiant heat was tremendous."

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