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SC investigators find that weather caused church fire

SLED says its conclusion on the fire's cause was based on an examination of the scene, analysis of debris, witness statements and a lightning strike report.

GREELEYVILLE, South Carolina -- Law enforcement officials say weather caused the fire that destroyed a predominantly black church in South Carolina.

A statement from the State Law Enforcement Division released Thursday says investigators found no evidence of criminal intent at the fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, and they declared the investigation complete.

The church is located about 50 miles north of the "Mother Emanuel" church in Charleston where nine people were killed on June 17.

SLED says its conclusion on the cause of the fire was based on an examination of the scene, analysis of debris, witness statements and a lightning strike report.

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A federal official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press earlier this week that arson was not involved in the fire at Mount Zion.

It's the same church that was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and set on fire 20 years ago.

While church fires have declined significantly in recent decades, they are not infrequent: Blazes at houses of worship happened, on average, 31 times a week across the nation, according to the data collected during the five-year period ending in 2011. If those trends still hold today, an average of five church fires could be intentionally set each week.

By comparison, since the shootings in Charleston, authorities have investigated roughly a half-dozen fires at predominantly black churches in the Southeast, only three of which appear to be arson. So far, no evidence of hate crimes has publicly surfaced. No one keeps a comprehensive, up-to-date tally of church fires in the United States, so it's possible to undercount the incidents.

Regarding the recent church fires across five states, a spokesman for the Department of Justice issued the following statement late Thursday:

“The federal law enforcement team of ATF, FBI, the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are actively investigating several church fires across five states that have occurred over the past two weeks.  Preliminary investigations indicate that two of the fires were started by natural causes and one was the result of an electrical fire.  All of the fires remain under active investigation and federal law enforcement continues to work to determine the cause of all of the fires.  To date the investigations have not revealed any potential links between the fires.“If in fact there is evidence to support hate crime charges in any one of these cases, the FBI, in coordination with the ATF and local authorities, will work closely with the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to bring those forward.”