Congregants alerted to the flames on a foggy night found some church buildings fully ablaze or collapsing into smoldering ruin. At one church, whose congregation dates back more than a century, members arrived just in time to put out a blaze that had been started under an American flag at the front of the sanctuary.
Jim Cavanaugh, head of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office for Alabama and Tennessee, said it was clear the fires were purposely set. "Obviously they're arson. The thing is — what is the motivation?"
As soon as Leslie Evans arrived at Ashby Baptist early this morning, the fire became personal. The local fire chief couldn't stop his own church from burning to the ground, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.
"You get here, all your church members, all your firemen, belong to this church. I helped build this," Evans told Strassmann. "To watch it burn down is no good."
Unlike a 1996 outbreak of fires at black churches in Alabama and elsewhere, there was no common thread of race in this case. Four of the churches have white congregations and one is black. All were Baptist, the dominant faith in the area.
Cavanaugh said fires in churches can raise difficulties in finding a motive. "Anything you light in a church is going to be a symbol," he said.
A fire Thursday afternoon also heavily damaged a church about 20 miles away in Chilton County, but construction work had been going on there and if that blaze was connected to the others, said Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations.
Federal investigators, joining state and local authorities, said the arson probe would include the New Harmony Holiness church at Fairview in Chilton County.
There were no immediate arrests. Uncertain of a motive, authorities also did not know if one or more people took part.