Florida Wildfires Claim More Than 50 Homes

(CBS/AP) Dry, windy weather fueled several wildfires on Florida's central Atlantic coast, damaging more than 50 homes and driving hundreds of residents away as the governor declared a state of emergency.

Fires in Palm Bay in Brevard County damaged about 50 homes and scorched 3,500 acres, or about 5.5 square miles. Palm Bay spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez said all 18 schools in Palm Bay would be closed Tuesday.

"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," Martinez said.

"We can't force people to leave their homes. However, if they chose not to leave their homes, we are asking them to provide us with names of next-of-kin, because the situation is that volatile and unsafe right now," Martinez told CBS News Radio.

CBS affiliate WKMG-TV in Orlando reported that at least 51 homes were damaged or destroyed by fires in Palm Bay, and an evacuation of about 200 homes located near Bayside High School was ordered after fires flared up Monday.

As the fires began to spread, WKMG reported, a group of men and women formed to help people they didn’t know save their homes. “I can’t sit by and watch,” resident Matt Call told the station. “I can’t evacuate and run away. I have to step up.”

In nearby Malabar, a 3,000-acre blaze destroyed at least four homes, including the house Butch Vanfleet built in 1980 and tried in vain to protect with a garden hose.

Vanfleet, 59, said the fire had reached the doorstep of the house in Malabar when he and his family fled Sunday evening. All that stood Monday was the chimney and a stone wall.

Vanfleet said he will rebuild.

"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."

The Florida Highway Patrol shut down a 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Brevard County. U.S. Highway 1 also was closed in that area, and it was not known when it will reopen, FHP spokeswoman Kim Miller said.

"The fires have picked up in Malabar so it's just heavy, thick black smoke and it's right at driver level," Miller said.

One person may be responsible for the blaze, said Ernie Dieble, an arson investigator with the Palm Bay Police Department. An eyewitness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly afterward, he said.

WKMG reported that the suspected arsonist may have set up to nine fires in Palm Bay.

To the north in Daytona Beach, about 800 acres had burned by Monday afternoon, said Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller.

A Palm Bay firefighter was taken to a hospital and held overnight for precaution, but seems to be fine, authorities said. A Daytona Beach firefighter was also treated at the scene for minor injures.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said in an e-mail that three responders were injured. It was unknown whether the two were among the three listed by the state. Mike Stone, emergency management spokesman, said he had no additional information on the injuries.

Authorities ordered about 500 homes in the northwest part of the city to be evacuated, but residents were allowed to return Monday evening. No homes were reported damaged, though officials warned that embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze. A 5-mile stretch of road through Daytona Beach was shut down because the fire was too close.

The fire was about 55 percent contained, but firefighters' efforts would be challenged by high winds and lower humidity, Weller said.

"The risk of this fire breaking out is very high, so the crews are continuing to work very hard," Weller said. "By no means is this fire safe."

Firefighters also contained two smaller blazes near Cocoa that damaged four homes and two commercial structures, officials said.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday. The move allows Florida to use federal funds and the National Guard, brings local emergency workers under state control and allows Florida to call on other states for help.

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