108 fires raging in state, leveling homes

May 14, 2008

Miami Herald--May 14, 2008


Firefighters appeared to be winning their battle on Tuesday against wildfires that destroyed more than 60 homes in this Brevard County community — fires that authorities believe were intentionally set.

Though blazes were still consuming much of the county — an area that grew to 10,000 acres, or more than 15 square miles, by Tuesday evening — the fires had turned toward less populated areas.

Statewide, 108 fires of various sizes were burning — nine were ”very big” and potentially damaging, said Charles Bronson, state agriculture commissioner.

The blazes sent a smoky haze over much of the state, including South Florida, where Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued air-quality advisories on Tuesday. Air quality in both counties was listed as ”moderate,” one step below optimal conditions — though Broward authorities were predicting better conditions Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Brevard, harried firefighters requested and received four helicopters fromm the Florida National Guard to help in fighting the fires. In Palm Bay, City Manager Lee Feldman said 62 houses were destroyed, at a cost of about $9 million, and 100 homes were damaged.

Palm Bay police joined state officials to form a task force to pursue arson investigations, said Yvonne Martinez, a city spokeswoman.

The fires ”are happening too close together over too large an area to just be accidental fires,” said Craig Fugate, director of the state Division of Emergency Management.

Weary firefighters on Tuesday feared that winds might kick up overnight, complicating the task of containing the blazes. Conditions were hardly ideal to begin with; dry conditions have turned much of the vegetation surrounding homes in Palm Bay into kindling.


”This really won’t be over until it rains,” Fugate said. ”Until it rains, the threat is going to be ever-present.” There is little chance of rain forecast until the weekend.

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds allowed many Palm Bay residents to return to their homes Tuesday — in some cases, to pick through rubble and search for jewelry or mementos that survived the flames.

Among them, Allen and Brenda Civita.

She was digging with gloved hands through the ashes of what used to be a 2,400-square-foot home, looking for a pendant her sons got her on Mother’s Day five years ago. It says “Mom.”

”There is nothing, nothing, nothing,” she said at one point as the couple looked for anything salvageable.

Brenda Civita was at work at a local credit union when the fires started; she returned home to get their pet dog.

”I truly believe when she came in the fire was up in the attic and she didn’t realize it,” said Allen Civita, a St. Lucie Fire Medic/Flight Medic who was on duty two counties away when the fire hit.

Between them they have four children. Mementos from when the kids were babies are gone, Allen Civita said. But he noted: “We have each other as a family and faith and we are going to start over and make it better this time.”

Throughout Palm Bay, it was hard to find a front yard without scorched grass; woodlands were burned right up to the lot lines. In many cases, homeowners had fought down the flames with garden hoses.

As Heidi How, 37, stood in her front yard on Dexter Street Tuesday afternoon, watching ashes fall like snow flurries, her husband, Brian How, was pulling water from a neighbor’s swimming pool to try to stop fires in the woods before they reached a stand of trees in the yard.

”I’m hoping we don’t lose any more houses on that block,” How said. Two were lost Monday night.

How and her family were forced to evacuate twice on Monday, she said — once during the night.

”You really can’t do much but watch and pray — and hope the wind doesn’t pick up,” Heidi How said.

Fire crews responded to sporadic flame-ups, like the one near How’s home, which they knocked down pretty quickly. Throughout the neighborhood, one could hear the roar of yellow diesel bulldozers, churning into the woods to plow up fresh dirt to create fire lines.

Martinez, the Palm Bay spokeswoman, said hundreds of firefighters from across the state were helping to battle the blazes, giving relief to a sorely taxed local fire department.

”We were overwhelmed,” she said.

Even as Martinez spoke Tuesday, fires were flaring up in the southern part of Brevard County, blocking Interstate 95, prompting one of several intermittent closings of the roadway.

The main challenge, she said, was “maintaining the containment and hoping the weather continues to favor us.”

All 18 schools in Palm Bay, including charter schools, were closed Tuesday.

Just south of Palm Bay, a large blaze destroyed at least four homes in nearby Malabar, including the house Butch Vanfleet built in 1980 and tried in vain to protect 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.”

Fire crews were working in shifts to fight the Malabar area fire.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who declared a state of emergency Monday, toured the area by helicopter Tuesday.

”Pretty devastating,” said the governor, who greeted and thanked fire fighters and other emergency workers.

The emergency order allows 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.

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.

Air quality was a relatively minor concern in South Florida. In warning about the air, officials said children, pregnant women, people with heart and respiratory ailments, older adults and people who exercise vigorously might be especially sensitive to the smoke — a mix of fine particles or droplets of dust, dirt, soot, mold and pollen. Experts advised staying indoors until air quality improves.

This report was supplemented by material from The Associated Press.