Authorities arrested a man they say was seen throwing a Molotov cocktail into the woods Wednesday in this Atlantic coast town, where several homes have been gutted by wildfires this week.
Authorities said Brian Crowder set a small blaze that was quickly extinguished. They planned to question the 31-year-old about larger 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 the fire, Palm Bay Detective Ernie Diebel said. The object was a glass bottle containing a flammable liquid, Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said.
The resident described a dark car, and officers stopped Crowder’s vehicle shortly afterward. Crowder got out of his car and fled, Diebel said.
Officers tracked Crowder through the woods with the help of other residents who spotted him running past their homes, police said.
Records show that Crowder has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating from 1996. He was charged Wednesday with six probation violations. He was being treated at a hospital for minor injuries caused by a police dog when officers took him into custody, Berger said.
A woman who answered the phone at a telephone listing for Crowder’s mother declined to speak to a reporter.
According to arrest reports, Crowder has lived at various addresses in Palm Bay. Neighbors of Crowder’s most recent residences, including a group home run by a church, said the homes were frequently rented by different people, and they did not know anything about Crowder.
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, who said homes and outbuildings were among the damaged structures. Officials had earlier reported 40 homes destroyed.
Authorities have said they believe the wildfires burning in Palm Bay and neighboring Malabar were set by an arsonist or arsonists. But two classic Florida phenomena have fueled the flames: rampant development and a year-round growing season.
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.
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.
Efforts to contain the fires were improving, officials said Wednesday. Still, major highways in the area were still being intermittently closed because of smoke and the proximity of the flames.
“We had pretty good weather last night, so the fire laid down and let us catch up a bit,” said Todd Schroeder, spokesman for the state’s Division of Forestry.
Some residents were trying Wednesday to pick through charred remains of their homes for belongings.
Firefighter Allen Civita’s three-bedroom Palm Bay home burned to the ground on Monday, leaving only metal bedsprings, melted wine glasses and the blackened hulk of the stove. He said a stranger kicked open the front door to grab photographs from the living room, kitchen and a bedroom before the flames took everything else.
“Thanks to that guy, we have some pictures that were in the house of us and the kids,” he said. “I don’t know if he lived through it before or if he had the good common sense to think, ’These people are losing everything, let me see what I can do to make some memories for them.”’
In north Florida, firefighters were also working on fires in uninhabited areas of Franklin and Liberty counties, west of Tallahassee. Both fires were in the Apalachicola National Forest and no people or homes were in danger.
On the other side of the country, crews were trying to make headway Wednesday against a fire 45 miles northeast of Los Angeles that had forced the evacuation of a half-dozen vacation homes Tuesday, though most already were empty, authorities said. Flames came within 100 yards of some cabins but none had been damaged.