Arson-started Florida Wildfires Fueled by Growth

May 15, 2008

Wildfires that have gutted at least 40 homes along Florida’s Atlantic coast are believed to have been started by arsonists, but they got help from two classic Florida factors: 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.

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.

Police have set up a special task force to catch the suspect or suspects who set the fires. They profiled “a trophy person,” likely to brag of his or her work at some point.

“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.

The Florida Division of Forestry said 40 homes in the Palm Bay area were destroyed and about 120 other structures, including homes and outbuildings, were damaged. Officials said the total damage estimate was approximately $9.6 million.

Authorities said May 13 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.

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 May 12 and awoke with resolve May 13 to pick through the ashes where she and her husband planned to rebuild.

Palm Bay schools were to be closed again May 14. Smoke and the proximity of the flames have caused the intermittent closure of major highways in the area.

“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.

Associated Press writers Travis Reed in Palm Bay and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.

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