ATLANTA — Ashley Archibald was riding the school bus Tuesday morning when she saw smoke billowing out of the doors and windows of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in rural Boligee, Ala.
The small, white wood-frame building was one of four Baptist churches in western Alabama set on fire early Tuesday -- less than a week after suspicious fires damaged five churches in central Alabama.
"All we could see was smoke," said Archibald, 16. "That's the church I've been to my whole life. I sung in the choir. Now there's nothing left."
Two of the four churches were destroyed. They were located off rural roads and were 10 to 20 miles apart. The fires were set in a cluster of three counties about 60 miles from Bibb County, where the five churches were burned Friday.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent 50 agents to Alabama to investigate both sets of fires, an official said.
Austin Banks, a senior special agent for the bureau, said there were "many common signs" between the church arsons in western and central Alabama. All were small churches located away from main roads; most of them showed signs of forced entry; and the fires were set near the pulpit, in the sanctuary area of the church.
Banks said local residents reported seeing two white males driving a dark-colored sport utility vehicle -- possibly a Pathfinder -- near the churches in both regions of Alabama where the fires were set.
"It's a sad sight to see a smoldering church, particularly when it doesn't have a rich congregation," Banks said. "This is going to be our top priority until we put someone in jail."
The bureau plans to add 50 agents to the 50 it has at its command post in Alabama.
The FBI, which has more than 10 agents in Alabama working on the arsons, is investigating the blazes as civil rights violations. Chip Burrus, the FBI's acting assistant director, told Associated Press that his investigators were working on the assumption that the nine fires were linked.
Although all of the churches that were torched Tuesday had predominantly black congregations, four of the five churches set on fire Friday had predominantly white congregations.
"I don't see any evidence that these fires are hate crimes," said Mark Potok, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Anti-Christian crimes are exceedingly rare in the South. It's more likely to be teenagers or a mentally ill person."
Tuesday morning, news of the fires spread quickly through the rural communities on the border of Alabama and Mississippi. The area is known as Alabama's Black Belt because of its dark, rich soil and poor African American population.
Two of the churches -- Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Greene County and Galilee Baptist Church in Sumter County -- were destroyed, and the two others -- Spring Valley Baptist Church in Sumter County and Dancy First Baptist Church in Pickens County -- received significant damage.
"We're scared," said Mary Britton, 34, an employee at the North Sumter Day Care Center, about four miles from the Dancy First Baptist Church. "It's horrible to know there is stuff like that in a person's heart."
Rural churches with predominantly African American congregations were burned in Alabama and across the South throughout the 1990s. In Greene County, where Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church was located, federal law enforcement officers investigated three fires in 1995 and 1996.
In 1996, the federal Church Arson Prevention Act -- which prohibits anyone from defacing, damaging or destroying religious property -- was signed into law.
In 2001, Jay Scott Ballinger, an Indiana man who called himself a missionary of the devil, was sentenced to life in prison for burning 26 churches in eight states, including Alabama, over a five-year period that ended in 1999.
State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered for the first set of fires.