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Officials suspect arson in Florida wildfires

Image: A resident wets down a roof
A resident wets a roof on Monday as brush fires surround homes in Malabar, Fla. Wildfires burned into the early morning on Tuesday across Florida’s Atlantic coast, but winds were expected to slow to 10 to 15 mph.Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Investigators searched Tuesday for one or more arsonists behind a string of stubborn wildfires that have destroyed or damaged more than 160 homes on Florida's Atlantic coast.

Firefighters in Brevard County were trying for the third day to contain fires that have scorched an estimated 10,000 acres, or more than 15 square miles, in and around the neighboring towns of Palm Bay and Malabar.

Though the high winds fueling the flames Monday had slowed significantly, officials worried about the flames spreading quickly in the dry conditions.

"We desperately need rain," said Palm Bay Fire Marshal Mike Couture. "We don't have any, and we're not projected to get any anytime soon."

All 18 schools in Palm Bay were closed Tuesday. Smoke and the proximity of the flames have caused the intermittent closure of major highways in the area, including a 34-mile section of Interstate 95 south of the fires that was closed again midmorning Tuesday.

"Flames are coming onto the interstate," Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller said.

Palm Bay fires contained
Authorities said they had "a majority" of the Palm Bay fires contained and were getting better control over the fires in Malabar, where firefighters slept in shifts on cots lined up in the volunteer fire station.

Palm Bay police were working with the state fire marshal's office and Brevard County Fire Rescue to investigate who set an estimated nine fires that spread into a larger, uncontrollable blaze.

"Some are caused by embers that are flying, but the locations of the fires indicated that these were initiated separately, which makes us firmly believe that an individual or individuals was involved in setting those," Police Chief Bill Berger said.

Palm Bay Fire Marshal Mike Cotoure said that 62 homes there were destroyed, a loss of $9 million, and that 100 more were damaged. At least four homes in the rest of the county were ruined, officials said.

Saving some homes
Neighborhoods built into dense woods were surrounded by ashes, twisted limbs and charred tree trunks where the fires raged through. Many homes, however, were saved.

Angel Pagan, a 35-year-old salesman, watched Tuesday as firefighters hosed down the smoldering woods surrounding his home. A night earlier, he neighbors used garden hoses and buckets of water to douse the flames. Pagan sent his wife and their young sons, ages 1 year old and 1 month, to stay with a relative.

"I cannot believe it; my house was surrounded, and my house did not go up," Pagan said. "It's pure luck, and God."

Across the street, a stucco home was charred and crumbling. On it was duct-taped a bright red note from the building inspector: "Totaled."

"We saved a lot of them. The fire department got here and their house was already on fire," Pagan said, gesturing across the street.

Wielding shovels, garden hoses
A few miles away, Barry Self, an off-duty Palm Bay police officer, was shoveling dirt over still-smoldering patches of woods across the street from his home. He and two neighbors also used garden hoses late into the night to ward off the fire as it skipped across their yards. Self lost his backyard fence and was without electricity Tuesday afternoon, but he said he considers himself fortunate.

"It looks like a little war zone," Self said of the area. "And we're lucky compared to a lot of people. I'm very lucky. I drove around this morning and saw a bunch of houses just totaled to the ground. It's unbelievable, it really is."

Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday toured the area, which he has declared a state of emergency. Federal officials have authorized funding to reimburse the state's firefighting costs in Brevard County.

Meanwhile, firefighters in Southern California were battling a 30-acre wildfire Tuesday that was scorching forest land about 45 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The blaze on Mount Baldy, in Angeles National Forest, was burning at about 7,000 feet Tuesday as stiff winds began blowing, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Peterson.

No evacuations have been reported, and it’s unclear what started the blaze.