Police Seek Arsonist As Crews Fight Fla. Wildfires

PALM BAY, Fla. (AP) -- Investigators searched Tuesday for one or more arsonists believed to have started nine wildfires that have destroyed or damaged about 100 homes on Florida's Atlantic coast, and crews continued to battle the blazes.

The relentless flames were burning for a third straight day, taxing firefighters and overwhelming residents who were trying to save their homes with garden hoses.

The state's largest blaze has charred about 3,800 acres, or nearly 6 square miles, in the neighboring towns of Palm Bay and Malabar.

"Every time I turn around another house is on fire. We don't have enough resources on our own to do a job like this," said Palm Bay spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez.

Officials expressed concern early Tuesday after flare-ups overnight. Flare-ups when humidity is higher can be a bad sign because fire spreads even more quickly during the drier and windier daylight hours, said Palm Bay Assistant Fire Chief Jim Stables.

"It's going to be challenging to get the fire under control," he said.

All 18 schools in Palm Bay, including charter schools, were closed Tuesday. 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 south of the fires that was closed again midmorning Tuesday.

"Flames are coming onto the interstate," Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller said.

One of the homes destroyed in Malabar belonged to Butch Vanfleet, who built the home in 1980 and tried in vain to protect it with a garden hose.

"It's devastation," he said. "All you see is nothing but ash in between the palm trees and the palmetto. There's no grass. The fire just came so quickly, we barely got out of there."

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday as dry, windy weather worsened conditions. His orders allow Florida to use federal funds and bring local emergency workers under state control. It also allows Florida to call on other states for help, if necessary.

Firefighters may get some help Tuesday, since winds on the coast were expected to slow to 10 to 15 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Authorities said the fire may be the result of arson. A witness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly afterward, an arson investigator said.

About 80 miles north in Daytona Beach, an 800-acre fire forced an evacuation order for about 500 homes, but residents were allowed to return Monday evening. No structures were reported damaged, though officials warned embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze and spark new hot spots.

Ray Ademski, a 68-year-old retiree, left his Daytona Beach home with his wife and their important papers when he saw columns of smoke Sunday night around the subdivision. He hosed down the roof and turned on the sprinklers in his yard before the couple left for a hotel.

"I could feel the heat from both sides," said Ademski, who returned by bicycle Monday to survey the damage. "The smoke was going straight into my eyes. It was terrible."

Hundreds of firefighters worked the state's blazes, bulldozing highly flammable brush and vegetation and leaving behind less flammable dirt to keep the fires from advancing. At least three firefighters were injured Monday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Meanwhile, firefighters in Southern California were battling a 30-acre wildfire Tuesday that was scorching forest land about 45 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The blaze on Mt. Baldy, in Angeles National Forest, was burning at about 7,000 feet Tuesday as stiff winds began blowing, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Peterson.

No evacuations have been reported, and it's unclear what started the blaze.

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay, Antonio Gonzalez, Kelli Kennedy and Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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