Firefighters Get Upper Hand on Florida Wildfire, Schools Open

May 16, 2008

Firefighters hoped to make further major gains against a wildfire that has charred thousands of acres along Florida’s Atlantic coast, as police questioned a man seen tossing a Molotov cocktail into nearby woods.

Schools that had been closed for two days reopened May 15, electricity was being restored and many residents had already returned to the area where about 20 homes were destroyed and 140 structures damaged.

A total of 4,700 homes were still without power in surrounding Brevard County on May 14, after officials shut off electricity as a precaution. Fifteen people were in shelters.

Firefighters credited additional support and equipment for help containing the fires, which have burned about 15 square miles – 9,600 acres – in Palm Bay and neighboring Malabar.

“We got quite a bit of work done,” Todd Schroeder, spokesman for the state’s Division of Forestry, said May 15. “There’s been no more damage to homes or property.”

Authorities May 14 questioned a man they arrested earlier in the day. Police said Brian Crowder, 31, was expected to be charged with setting a small fire in the area of the larger blazes.

Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said he believed there was a “good possibility” Crowder would be charged with that small fire. Berger said, however, that Crowder has denied being involved with the larger fires, which have cost millions in damage.

A resident alerted police after allegedly 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 glass bottle containing an accelerant, Berger said.

Crowder was stopped a short time later and apprehended after fleeing from police. He was found hiding under a pile of leaves in nearby woods. Records show that he has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating from 1996. He was charged May 14 with six probation violations.

A total of almost 26,000 acres – 40 square miles – were ablaze as of May 14, according to an emergency management report.

Aside from the fires in Palm Bay and nearby Malabar, the majority of the fires were in Glades County. In an area around Lake Okeechobee, roughly 11,000 acres had burned or were still burning, though no structures had been damaged.

A second wildfire on the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation was burning about 1,000 acres, but winds had settled down and no structures were threatened late on May 14.

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