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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Florida Brush Fires Threaten Hundreds of Homes - New York Times

Schools were closed in Palm Bay, Florida, 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.

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

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

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 Palm Bay, 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.

Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said that reports of arson and the pattern of the fire outbreaks strongly suggested 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 are 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, 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.

Florida Brush Fires Threaten Hundreds of Homes - New York Times
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