By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Firefighters get upper hand on Florida wildfire
Wildfires FLJR101 5084199
Dean Serencko, right, holds fiance, Jacqueline Pedercini, in front of the home they share that was destroyed by wildfires in Palm Bay, Fla., Wednesday, May 14, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    PALM BAY, Fla. — A man accused of lobbing a Molotov cocktail into woods that are among the thousands of acres that have burned along Florida’s Atlantic coast conceded Thursday that he may have accidentally sparked a fire.
    But Brian Crowder, 31, said he tossed a cigarette, not a bottle full of flammable liquid, out of his car.
    ‘‘I believe that I accidentally may have — may have — started by tossing a cigarette out the door,’’ Crowder told a horde of reporters as he was being led in shackles by police early Thursday.
    Firefighters made major gains Wednesday against the flames, enough that schools that had been closed for two days reopened Thursday, electricity was being restored and many residents had 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 Wednesday evening, 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 Thursday. ‘‘There’s been no more damage to homes or property.’’
    Authorities arrested and questioned Crowder on Wednesday and said he 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.
    Crowder said Thursday that he ran because he had violated probation and was driving without a license. Records show he has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating from 1996. He was charged Wednesday with six probation violations and was due in court Thursday afternoon.
    Elsewhere, scattered fires were still burning around the state Wednesday. A total of almost 26,000 acres — 40 square miles — were ablaze as of Wednesday evening, 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 Wednesday.
    In California, hand crews worked in the dark, trying to make more progress against a stubborn 320-acre wildfire. The blaze on Mount Baldy, 45 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, was being fed by winds reaching 40 mph. Firefighters were concerned the flames would be pushed across a road and closer to houses.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter