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Arson, growth to blame for Fla. wildfires

Image: Wildfire aftermath
Dan Covey salvages what he can from his rented home in Palm Bay, Fla., on Tuesday after the wildfires.Craig Bailey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wildfires that have gutted at least 20 homes along the state’s Atlantic coast are believed to have been started by arson, but they got help from two classic Florida phenomenon: rampant development and a year-round growing season.

Experts said the fires reported in Brevard County that have burned roughly 10,000 acres — or more than 15 square miles — have found ample fuel because the state has not been able to hold controlled burns near development to cut back vegetation.

That means firefighters are battling palmetto palms that should be knee-high, but have been allowed to grow for 20 or 30 years, said Dale Armstrong, senior forester with the state’s Division of Forestry.

Florida’s endless growing season and waxy plants that can burn while still green are also culprits, said Ken Outcalt, a research plant ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

“The fuels in Florida are mostly live plants, unlike in the West where it’s usually dead fuel that’s accumulated underneath the trees,” he said.

Added challenges
The Brevard County fires present two kinds of firefighting challenges simultaneously because the vegetation is mixed so closely with homes. The buildings impede traditional forest firefighting techniques such as plowing lines of dirt in the flames’ path or lighting backfires, Outcalt said.

Authorities arrested a man Wednesday who they said threw a glass bottle containing an accelerant into the woods.

Officials were waiting to question Brian Crowder, 31, about the wildfires that have found ample fuel in developments in the region, where the state has not held controlled burns to cut back vegetation.

A resident alerted police after seeing Crowder throw an object from his car that sparked a small fire in the woods, Palm Bay Detective Ernie Diebel said. The object was a bottle containing a flammable liquid, police Chief Bill Berger said.

“It’s unconscionable that somebody would do this to another man or woman, put them in jeopardy,” Gov. Charlie Crist said shortly after flying over the damaged areas where he declared a state of emergency.

Since the fires began Sunday, about 20 homes have been destroyed and 160 other structures damaged. The damage was estimated at approximately $3.5 million, said Palm Bay City Manager Lee Feldman. Officials had earlier reported 40 homes destroyed.

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

'It's gone. It's all gone'
The destruction was hard for Veda VanFleet to fathom as she stood amid the charred remains of the two-story home her husband, Butch, built almost 30 years ago in Malabar. She remembered the treehouse her three boys used to play in out back and the basketball hoop in the front yard.

“It’s gone. It’s all gone,” said VanFleet, who cried all day Monday and awoke with resolve Tuesday to pick through the ashes where she and her husband planned to rebuild.

Palm Bay schools were to be closed again Wednesday. 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 that was closed midmorning Tuesday.

“This really won’t be over until it rains. Until it rains, the threat is going to be ever-present,” said State Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate. Forecasts show little chance of rain until at least the weekend.