Suspicious fires destroyed two churches and damaged a third in adjoining counties within 10 hours over the weekend, stoking fears of a new round of church arsons in rural Alabama.
Authorities on Tuesday were still trying to determine whether the blazes discovered Saturday in east Alabama near the Georgia line were intentionally set, but the proximity and timing of the fires raised concerns.
"The biggest red flag is that they were so close together, both in distance and time," said Steve Holmes, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office.
The string of fires at three small, rural churches brought back memories of two spates of church arsons in recent years.
Three college students pleaded guilty to setting fire to nine rural Alabama churches in 2006, and two men described as satanists by investigators pleaded guilty to setting fires at three more churches last year.
With those fires in mind, a member at one of the churches damaged last weekend said he had been worried about the possibility of arson for years because of the isolated location of his church.
"I have no idea why our church was targeted, or the other two for that matter," said David Deshields, a member of Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church near Opelika.
Fire destroyed Union Hill CME Church in rural Chambers County about 4:30 a.m. Saturday, and Liberty CME Church was destroyed in a fire that was reported about 6 1/2 hours later just seven miles away. State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk called the blazes "highly suspicious."
"It is a shame that we could be heading down a similar path again," he said in a statement.
On Saturday afternoon, someone tried to burn the Pitts Chapel church about 30 miles away in Lee County. The damage was only minor, and investigators said they gathered evidence including graffiti that was left inside the wood-frame building, built in 1898.
The nature of the graffiti wasn't disclosed.