Are Sets Of Ala. Church Fires Linked?

A volunteer Firefighters from the West Greene Fire Department sprays water on the smoldering remains of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee, Ala., in Greene County, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. Four more houses of worship were destroyed or damaged along country roads in Alabama, after after five were set ablaze in arsons four days ago. Investigators said the latest fires at four churches, all started overnight. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
An Alabama official says it's too soon to say whether there's a link between two sets of church fires.

Authorities say four Baptist churches were damaged overnight near the Mississippi state line, about 10 to 20 miles from each other. All were in sparsely populated areas off rural roads, similar to five church fires that burned early Friday south of Birmingham.

That string of fires destroyed three rural Baptist churches and damaged two others in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham. The

were set "as fast as they could drive from one location to the next," Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said.

Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said it was too soon to say if there was any link between the sets of blazes.

"Obviously we're going to investigate these as suspected arsons," Ingram said.

In one town, all that's left of the wood-framed Morning Star Baptist Church are the front steps and a handrail.

A church member says he was alerted to the fire by a school bus driver and arrived just as smoke was pouring out of windows and flames were visible near the pulpit.

A spokesman for the agency that oversees fire investigations says Alabama has had 59 church fires in the past five years. Nineteen of those fires were ruled arsons.

All nine churches were Baptist, the dominant faith in the area.

The four fires reported Tuesday were in three sparsely populated counties in west Alabama. Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle were damaged, Ingram said. The other two, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee and Gallilee Baptist in Panola, were destroyed.

In Boligee, firefighters sprayed down the smoldering rubble at Morning Star Baptist Church, where all that remained of the wood-frame building were the front steps and handrail. The church had burned to its concrete foundation.

Johnny Archibald, a church member who lives nearby, said he was alerted to the fire by a school bus driver and arrived about 6:45 a.m, just as smoke was pouring out of windows and flames were visible near the pulpit. He said it seemed as if the front door had been kicked in.

He said he immediately thought of last week's church fires.

"I don't know what's going on. It's just sickness," he said.

The string of fires early Friday in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham, destroyed three churches and damaged two others.

Agents investigating the five Bibb County fires said Tuesday that they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle in connection with the blazes.

Members of Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield told The Associated Press in interviews that they saw a dark Nissan Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to put out a fire shortly after 4 a.m. Friday.

Investigators believe all five Bibb County fires were linked, Ingram said. He said they are pursuing several leads but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."

The FBI is looking into whether fires are a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, said FBI Special Agent Raymond Zicarelli in Birmingham. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered in the probe.