More Homes Threatened by Florida Fires

    More Homes Threatened by Florida Fires

13 May 2008

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FL, USA — Schools were closed in Palm Bay, Fla., on Tuesday and hundreds of homes in the central Atlantic coast region of the state were endangered by spreading, wind-whipped brush fires that may have been deliberately set.

Around midday, Palm Bay officials reported that 75 to 100 homes and outbuildings had been destroyed or damaged, about 115 people were in shelters after being driven from their homes and 8,000 people were without power as a result of the fires.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for Brevard and Volusia Counties on Monday and visited the area on Tuesday. The declaration puts local emergency workers under state control and allows Florida to call on other states for assistance.

After touring the area, Governor Crist reported that a total of 108 fires in 14 counties were burning across Florida, blackening 17,000 acres. But state officials pointed out there have been no deaths from the blazes and only a few casualties, mostly among firefighters.

“We have lost some houses, but we have not lost any lives,” said Craig Fugate, director of the state’s Department of Emergency Management.

The fires came close enough to Debbie Tuten’s house in Malabar, southeast of Orlando, to scorch the fence on Monday, but the house survived. Ms. Tuten said flames two-stories high raced through the woods nearby as she and her husband, Keith, used a garden hose to stop fire spreading toward the white clapboard house throughout the day. By late evening, as the fires drew closer, they decided it was a lost cause.

As firefighters held the flames at bay, the Tutens fled the house along with their horse, Buck, and other horses they had been stabling in their barn.

“The fire was completely surrounding us,” Ms. Tuten, 60, said in an interview on Tuesday. “If it weren’t for the firemen we would have lost everything.”

The flames spared the Tuten’s house, although the barn was partly destroyed. The property around the building still smoldered on Tuesday afternoon and several stumps in the area were still burning.

“I really didn’t expect the house to be here when we got back this morning,” Ms. Tuten said.

Some local officials said they were being overwhelmed by the outbreaks. “Every time I turn around, another house is on fire,” Yvonne Mertinez, a spokeswoman for the Palm Bay city government, told The Associated Press. “We don’t have enough resources on our own to do a job like this.” But fire officials speaking on Tuesday praised departments in other parts of the state for sending trucks and crews to help fight the blazes.

Police Chief Bill Berger of Palm Bay said the reports of arson and the pattern of the fire outbreaks strongly suggested that they were no accident. “The location of the fires indicated that they were deliberately set,” he said. The police had been overwhelmed with calls from people reporting suspicious activity, many of them about the same event, he said.

A 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95, the major north-south highway in the region, remained closed in Brevard County because of drifting smoke, and a length of U.S. Highway 1 was closed as well. I-95 was reopened later in the day.

The fires on Monday endangered a high school in Palm Bay, so all 18 schools in the town were closed on Tuesday as a precaution.

In nearby Malabar, another blaze consumed 3,000 acres of bush and at least four homes. The Malabar fire may have been deliberately set, the authorities said. A witness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly thereafter.

Firefighters may get something of a break on Tuesday as winds are expected to drop to 10 to 15 miles per hour, but rain is unlikely, forecasters said.

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