Police arrest man on suspicion of starting small fire in Fla.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

PALM BAY, Fla. -- Authorities arrested a man they say was seen throwing a Molotov cocktail into the woods Wednesday in this Atlantic coast town, where several homes have been gutted by wildfires this week.

Officials questioned Brian Crowder, who authorities allege set a small blaze that was quickly extinguished. They also asked the 31-year-old about larger wildfires that have found ample fuel in developments in the region, blazes he denied involvement with.

Palm Bay police chief Bill Berger said he believed there was a "good possibility" Crowder would be charged with starting a small fire.

A resident alerted police after seeing Crowder throw an object from his car that sparked the small fire, Palm Bay Detective Ernie Diebel said. The object was a glass bottle containing a flammable liquid, Berger said.

Officers stopped Crowder's vehicle shortly afterward but he fled on foot, Diebel said. He was tracked through the woods with the help of residents who spotted him running past their homes, police said.

Records show that Crowder has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating to 1996. He was charged Wednesday with six probation violations.

A woman who answered the phone at a telephone listing for Crowder's mother declined to comment.

According to arrest reports, Crowder has lived at various addresses in Palm Bay. Neighbors of Crowder's most recent residences, including a group home run by a church, said that the homes were frequently rented by different people and that they did not know anything about Crowder.

Authorities have said they believe the wildfires burning in Palm Bay and neighboring Malabar were set by an arsonist or arsonists. Two classic Florida phenomena have fueled the flames: rampant development and a year-round growing season.

Since the fires began Sunday, about 20 homes have been destroyed and 140 other structures damaged. The damage was estimated around $3.5 million, said Palm Bay city manager Lee Feldman, who said homes and outbuildings were among the damaged structures. Officials had earlier reported 40 homes destroyed.

Efforts to contain the fires, which have burned about 15 square miles, were improving, officials said. Still, major highways in the area were still being intermittently closed because of smoke and the proximity of the flames.

"We had pretty good weather last night, so the fire laid down and let us catch up a bit," said Todd Schroeder, spokesman for the state's Division of Forestry.

Some residents tried Wednesday to pick through charred remains of their homes for belongings.

Firefighter Allen Civita's three-bedroom Palm Bay home burned to the ground Monday, leaving only metal bedsprings, melted wine glasses and the blackened hulk of the stove. He said a stranger kicked open the front door to grab photographs from the living room, kitchen and a bedroom before the flames took everything else.

"Thanks to that guy, we have some pictures that were in the house of us and the kids," he said. "I don't know if he lived through it before or if he had the good common sense to think, 'These people are losing everything, let me see what I can do to make some memories for them.'"

In north Florida, firefighters were also working on fires in uninhabited areas of Franklin and Liberty counties, west of Tallahassee. Both fires were in the Apalachicola National Forest and no people or homes were in danger.

On the other side of the country, crews were trying to make headway Wednesday against a fire 45 miles northeast of Los Angeles that had forced the evacuation of a half-dozen vacation homes Tuesday, though most already were empty, authorities said. Flames came within 100 yards of some cabins but none had been damaged.

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