ELF Claims Responsibility for Torching of San Diego Condo Project
A radical environmental group that has torched ski resorts in Colorado and luxury homes in New York is suspected of setting one of the costliest fires in San Diego history.
A 206-unit condominium project under construction in University City was destroyed yesterday in a 3 a.m. blaze that caused damage estimated in excess of $20 million.
"If you build it, we will burn it," read the 12-foot banner left behind. It was signed: "The E.L.F.s are mad."
The banner "is a legitimate claim of responsibility by the Earth Liberation Front," according to an e-mail sent to The San Diego Union-Tribune yesterday.
The cause of the blaze at the La Jolla Crossroads development near University Towne Centre has not been determined.
The probe has been put on hold for the weekend to give a response team from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms time to arrive from several Western states, said Fred Herrera, an investigator with the local Metro Arson Strike Team.
The investigation will be massive. Twenty investigators, photographers, evidence technicians and engineers are being flown in to assist 10 San Diego-based ATF investigators, FBI agents and the local arson team.
While no one was injured in yesterday's three-alarm fire, the impact was dramatic.
More than 100 firefighters worked through the early morning to protect nearby structures.
Hundreds of residents were evacuated from adjacent apartment buildings in the densely populated area. Windows cracked and blinds melted. Roads were closed and freeway exits blocked.
Dozens of people gathered at the site off Interstate 805 before dawn to watch the five-story building burn.
"It looked like a big fireworks show," said Mike Holleran, a student at the University of California San Diego.
Flames leapt 200 feet into the air and could be seen for miles. Grapefruit-sized fireballs landed in courtyards and patios of adjacent buildings, and burning embers swirled in the night.
"An enormous orange glow covered the entire sky," said San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, describing the scene as he drove northward toward it. "It looked like sunrise."
A 100-foot, $7 million construction crane toppled and was destroyed during the fire. A 500-gallon fuel tank exploded.
Hours later, cars parked more than a mile away were covered in a layer of soot.
The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for four fires this year, according to its Web site. The group, dedicated to fighting urban sprawl, claims to have set dozens of fires in North America since 1997 that have resulted in nearly $50 million in damage.
A statement from the Earth Liberation Front read: "The ELF Press Office has received no communique for the UTC San Diego fire that took place August 1, 2003 and thus can not answer any questions as to why this location and city was chosen for the latest ELF action."
Sometimes it takes a few days, or even weeks, for members of the organization to let the larger organization know about the fires they set. ELF describes itself as "an international underground movement consisting of autonomous groups of people who carry out direct action according to the ELF guidelines."
The FBI labels the group a terrorist organization.
The condominium building destroyed yesterday was the first of five planned phases for a 1,500-home project called La Jolla Crossroads. Framing was nearly complete on the condos, and workers said they were preparing to install the roof, plumbing and electrical wiring.
"You put your heart and soul into this, and look," said one worker, Rod Fink, staring blankly at his destroyed work.
Other workers gathered in small groups, angrily venting about the hardship that had been inflicted on them. "I'm out of work now," one said. "Thank you, arsonist."
Workers said there had been no picketing or demonstrations at the site.
Environmentalists said the devastation was pointless.
"You can go and burn something down, but it's just going to get built again," said Debby Knight, president of Friends of Rose Canyon, a local preservation group.
The City Council approved the La Jolla Crossroads project in November 2000 despite opposition from nearby residents. The project is being built south of La Jolla Village Drive and west of Interstate 805.
Some members of the University City Planning Group said the project would add more traffic to what is already one of the most congested neighborhoods in the city.
Environmentalists complained that building homes and a research center on the vacant property would destroy some of the last remaining wetlands in San Diego.
But there has been little opposition since the project was approved.
"I haven't really heard much about it at all," said City Councilman Scott Peters, who represents University City.
The project was approved during the tenure of his predecessor, Harry Mathis.
Peters said he has received letters from people concerned about development in the area, "but those are people involved in the democratic process."
After surveying the damage yesterday morning, Peters spoke with Stuart Posnack, the representative of the developer, Garden Communities.
"He looked pretty low," Peters said. "I just told him I was sorry it happened."
Officials at Garden Communities did not return messages requesting interviews.
Developers across the region said they were astonished the fire was set. Some worried the arson attack might mean that activists are raising the ante when protesting projects.
Donna Morafcik of the Building Industry Association of San Diego, which represents about 1,400 companies, said demonstrations at construction sites are relatively uncommon.
"It's rare that we hear of this," she said. "Some folks over the years may have protested, but it's not a routine occurrence."
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