Fire damages UW's Center for Urban Horticulture

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The fire that heavily damaged the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture is being called suspicious and federal agents have been brought in to help investigate.

No one was hurt, but the loss is significant, between $1.5 to $2 million, according to the Seattle Fire Department.

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms & Tobacco (ATF) have joined the investigation, said interim Deputy Chief Barbara Beers. She would not say why the fire was deemed suspicious.

The FBI office in Seattle says it also is monitoring the incident should the cause turn out to be arson and politically motivated, said FBI spokesman Ray Lauer.

Meanwhile, in Clatskanie, Ore., northwest of Portland near the Columbia River, a fire ignited by explosives destroyed two buildings and vehicles at a tree nursery today, and the FBI is looking into whether it is the work of the Earth Liberation Front.

No one has said the fires are linked and no one has taken responsibility for either of them.

Several pickups, all-terrain vehicles and a semi-trailer at Jefferson Poplar Farms were destroyed along with an equipment storage building and a maintenance building, the Oregon State Police said. No one was injured in the fire.

The letters "ELF" were written on the side of a building, as was the phrase "You cannot control what is wild," said FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele.

The ELF is a shadowy group that, since 1996, has carried out arson attacks against commercial entities which the radicals say threaten or damage the environment.

The FBI considers the ELF one of the county's leading domestic terrorist organizations, with millions of dollars in damages linked to its actions since 1997.

The FBI's Terrorism Task Force and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, along with the Oregon State Police, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office and the Clatskanie Fire Department are investigating the attack.

No cause had been determined by mid-afternoon, and ATF dogs were to be brought in to search for accelerants, she said.

It took firefighters two hours to extinguish the fire at the University of Washington, which began at 3:20 a.m., said fire department spokeswoman Lt. Sue Stangl.

The center was the first of its kind when it was created 20 years ago and is known worldwide for its work on sustaining natural resources by applying horticulture both to natural and altered landscapes.

John Wott, a professor of urban horticulture at the center, said the main wing of Merrill Hall was destroyed, taking with it decades of research.

That work includes how to improve landscapes, save water in gardens, and choose plants wisely in the Northwest. How much was saved in backup files has yet to be determined, he said.

Stangl said firefighters were unable to enter the building for approximately 40 minutes, until it was determined there were no hazardous materials inside. By that time, the fire had spread to the roof area and crews had to retreat because of the possibility of a collapse.

The Elisabeth C. Miller library, which houses thousands of books, fared better than Merrill Hall. Among the library's collection are centuries-old rare books, including works by David Douglas, for whom the Douglas fir is named.

Most of the library damage is from water and smoke.

"We are beginning to remove books to see how much can be salvaged," Wott said. "The building will come down in the near future. We're now in the process of determining how to carry on."

With 50 staff members, the center has one of the largest continuing education programs at the UW, and has been a community favorite for both education and celebrations, including weddings and memorials.

Just north of Husky Stadium on the eastern edge of the campus, it contained laboratory facilities on the first floor and classrooms and offices. It was closed and no one was inside when sensors trigged the alarm, Stangl said.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this article.