PALM BAY — Firefighters facing blazes that have destroyed or damaged more than 160 homes on Florida's Atlantic coast are battling flames amid lush palms and shrubs that have been allowed to flourish as communities sprang up among them, experts said Tuesday.
Wildfires have scorched 3,800 acres, or 6 square miles, through the neighboring towns of Palm Bay and Malabar, built into dense woods along Interstate 95. Investigators are searching for one or more arsonists who apparently started the fires.
Palm Bay police Chief Bill Berger said investigators believe at least 11 fires were started intentionally, and announced a $15,000 reward already for the suspect's capture. He implored the public to call in tips.
"I believe this person is a trophy person. He's going to talk to somebody," Berger said.
Many houses are surrounded by ashes, twisted limbs and charred, slender tree trunks, but some residents managed to save their homes with buckets of water and garden hoses.
Angel Pagan, a 35-year-old salesman, watched Tuesday as firefighters hosed down the smoldering woods surrounding his home. A night earlier, his neighbors used garden hoses and buckets of water to douse the flames.
Across the street, a stucco home was charred and crumbling. On it was duct-taped a bright red note from the building inspector: Totaled.
A few miles away, Barry Self, an off-duty Palm Bay police officer, was shoveling dirt over still-smoldering patches of woods across the street from his home. He and two neighbors also used garden hoses late into the night to ward off the fire as it skipped across their yards.
Experts said the fires found ample fuel where structures meet Florida's forest. The state has not been able to hold controlled burns to cut back vegetation, as it used to, because of the development. So firefighters are battling palmetto palms that should be knee-high, but have been allowed to grow for 20 or 30 years, said Dale Armstrong, senior forester with state's Division of Forestry.
Also culprits are Florida's year-round growing season and waxy plants that can burn while still green, said Ken Outcalt, a research plant ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
"The fuels in Florida are mostly live plants, unlike in the West where it's usually dead fuel that's accumulated underneath the trees," he said.
Authorities said they had "a majority" of the Palm Bay fires contained and were getting better control over the fires in Malabar, where firefighters slept in shifts on cots at the fire station.
Though the high winds fueling the flames since the weekend had slowed significantly, officials worried about overnight flareups and the flames spreading quickly. Embers and lit leaves could fly more than a mile from hot spots.
"This really won't be over until it rains. Until it rains, the threat is going to be ever-present," said state emergency management director Craig Fugate. Forecasts show little chance of rain until at least the weekend.
Smoke and the proximity of the flames have caused the intermittent closure of major highways in the area.
About 8,000 homes and businesses were without power Tuesday afternoon after electrical service was disconnected for firefighters' safety.