Live: Brush fires torch thousands of acres
FLORIDA TODAY staff reports • May 13, 2008
8:25 a.m.: Residents advised to be wary
PALM BAY — Fire officials are urging residents returning to burned out areas of the city to be mindful of power lines and other debris left behind by Monday’s surge in brush fires.
Several power poles are burned through and electrical lines – many possibly still energized – have fallen, said Assistant Chief Jim Stables. “There are still power lines on the ground,” Stables said.
“Be patient and please don’t wander around the neighborhoods. (People) need to be aware of what’s around them.”
So far only voluntary evacuations have been put in place, meaning residents could begin venturing back into burned out neighborhoods within the next several hours. Others remain at a shelter set up at Our Lady of Grace Church on Malabar Road.
-- J.D. Gallop, FLORIDA TODAY
6:57 a.m.: Fatigue sets in for firefighters
PALM BAY — Some Palm Bay Fire Rescue crews have been chasing flames, dragging hoses thorough smoke and rolling from neighborhood to neighborhood for nearly two days.
To help the department’s already fatigued firefighters, the agency is going to a 12-hour shift on Thursday. Officials said it will mean more rest for the city’s 111 firefighters – some on duty for as long as 36 hours since Sunday - as they continue to fight the aggressive wild fires burning across the city.
“This will give them a chance to decompress,” said Assistant Fire Chief Jim Stables this morning.
Firefighters from across the state are also being used to replenish fire-fighting forces.
Officials are also working to repair fire engines and other equipment in constant use since the fires started on Sunday.
5:15 a.m.: Spreading fires challenge resources
Palm Bay Assistant Chief Jim Stables held a news briefing this morning. Assessment teams will be out at sunrise to evaluate the damage, but early reports continue to hold the number of acres burned in Palm Bay and Malabar at 3,500 acres.
Stables said the fires are broken up into three divisions in the southeast section of Palm Bay. He warned that residents may see fire that appears out of control, but they have to remember that firefighters are out to protect only homes at this time.
"I don't want to give a false sense of security," Stables said. He said residents need to remain cautious and be prepared for the worst.
Some fast facts from this morning's press conference:
# The Palm Bay Fire Department has 139 people on staff. There are currently 111 Palm Bay firefighters on the line fighting these fires with manpower bolstered by firefighters from around the state, including Jacksonville and Miami.
# Typically the department has a $13 million annual budget, but is relying on the state to help with other resources. The state Forestry Division has already put in resources that include two helicopters that are used to drop water on flames, and fixed-wing observation aircraft. The Brevard County Sheriff's Office also is using a helicopter to provide assessments.
"We just have to have our resources well placed," he said.
4:45 a.m.: Personal toll mounts in Palm Bay
This morning's scheduled press conference is now under way. Deputy Palm Bay Mayor Ed Geier has told FLORIDA TODAY that three city employees have lost their homes and learned about it at 1 a.m. during an Emergency Operations Center briefing. They're continuing to hear stories of people displaced by fires.
"We cannot even imagine the damage that's out there," he said.
Two firefighters were injured yesterday. One suffered smoke inhalation and was treated, and another ran into a power line.
Currently, the deputy mayor is asking residents to prepare for what could be a shift in winds this morning that could rekindle the fires. Based on weather forecasts, he said people need to be prepared. People need to get their paper work together, their insurance documents and just be ready, Geier said.
"We had a firefighter who lost his home in Malabar. We have police officers whose families are somewhere else, but they're still out here,"
Geier said. "Some of these folks have been working 36 hours straight, but they're going to be here."
4:15 a.m.: Palm Bay update
Palm Bay officials are updating the fire status in a news briefing that began at 4 a.m. at Bayside High School. These are the latest numbers and updates being released:
Approximately 3,500 acres have been consumed within the city limits. Several fires remain active throughout the southwest and southeast portions of the city with only a small portion contained at this time.
Residents on city water north of Malabar Road are asked not to use irrigation systems. Code Enforcement Officers are currently out in the area enforcing the temporary ban in order to preserve water resources to fight fires.
# DAMAGE ASSESSMENT:
About 50-75 homes have been reported damaged or destroyed. Fire Inspectors and Building Inspectors will begin deploying at about 8 a.m. today to conduct damage assessments in the impacted area. These inspectors will be deploying in teams of two.
# POWER OUTAGES:
Approximately 5,500 residents are without power. FPL is deploying additional resources to the area. It is not known when power will be restored.
# ARSON INVESTIGATION:
The fires that began on Mother' Day are believed to be deliberately set.
Arson investigators are following any leads that are reported. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the successful arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for setting the fires. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Central Florida CRIMELINE at 1-800-423-TIPS.
One Palm Bay Firefighter was injured after a live power line fell on him. The firefighter suffered minor shock as a result. He was airlifted to the hospital and is in stable condition.
# ROAD CLOSURES:
All roads in Palm Bay are open, however patrol officers are in high risk areas with traffic control points and may deny access depending on the risk factors.
All schools in the City of Palm Bay will be closed today. Updates will be issued as the situation progresses.
PALM BAY -- Five major brush fires burned out of control in Palm Bay on Monday, forcing the evacuation of two schools, damaging 51 homes, injuring at least one firefighter and sending police on a desperate search to stop the suspected arsonists.
Nineteen Brevard public schools serving Palm Bay students will not open today amid warnings by meteorologists that the dangerous windy and dry conditions will persist. The Palm Bay campuses of Brevard Community College and the University of Central Florida and the Property Appraiser's Cogan Drive office also will be closed.
With more than 6,000 acres burning throughout Brevard from Malabar in the south to Cocoa in the north, Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency that also encompasses Volusia and Glades counties. Crist is expected to tour some fire-damaged areas today.
"I've lived here 46 years. I've never seen anything like this," Stephanie Wilt said, as flames from a fully engulfed palm tree threatened her home on Tropicaire Avenue in Palm Bay.
The brush fires stretched across much of southeast Palm Bay by Monday evening, with thick smoke seen billowing into the sky for miles. Florida Power & Light Co. said electricity was cut to about 5,400 residents in the Palm Bay and Malabar area at the request of firefighters.
Approximately 110 people sought refuge at the Red Cross shelter at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Palm Bay.
"If there's smoke, you probably need to pick up and go someplace else because it's dangerous," said Mayor John Mazziotti.
Interstate 95 had to be shut down for the second day in a row, with cars exiting at Malabar Road to the north and Fellsmere to the south.
As flames crept dangerously close to Bayside High and Westside Elementary, an armada of yellow school buses filled the lots. Traffic was clogged as the buses moved out and frantic parents rushed to the schools to retrieve their children.
Other students left the school on foot as orange flames shot 40 feet into the air, scorching paper-dry pine trees and burning down at least one home at 1940 DeGroodt Road across the street.
In addition, at least one portable classroom burned at Bayside, while two burned at Westside.
Students stared from across the street while a Florida Division of Forestry helicopter landed in Bayside's parking lot. The pilot prepared to scoop up water from a lake in the Bridgewater Estates neighborhood.
A separate blaze raged on Treemont Avenue, south of Jupiter Boulevard, destroying at least one home and engulfing four parked cars.
Cheyenne Grice, 13, watched the encroaching fire from her family's van parked on the north side of Jupiter Boulevard.
"I never thought it would come near my house," she said. "I was crying and screaming for my dad to get out." He did.
Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said arson investigators believe that the same person or persons may be behind several of Sunday's nine blazes and Monday's fires. They are offering a reward of up to $10,000 to anyone with information.
"We have no fires that were accidentally set. All of these fires were deliberately set," said Palm Bay Fire Rescue Fire Marshall Mike Couture.
Berger said police want to talk to a thin, white male driving a dark-colored sedan, possibly a Honda or Hyundai, seen throwing an incendiary device in the neighborhood of St. Andre Boulevard S.W.
"If you know anybody who may have done this, call us," Berger said Monday afternoon as thick, gray smoke and black ashes washed over Bayside High.
Along DeGroodt Road and streets west of it near the high school, people were watering down roofs and lawns or just watching as fire trucks raced through the normally quiet neighborhood.
Later Monday, police urged residents to stop watering their lawns and doing excess laundry in an apparent effort to prevent the depletion of water pressure.
Palm Bay firefighters spent much of the day rushing into neighborhoods to quench rising flames, douse hotspots and water down smoldering, dried-out vegetation.
About noon, one of those hot spots flared up and came dangerously close to 31-year-old Sheffries McDaniels' house on San Filippo Street near the intersection of Gaghagen Street. Firefighters managed to save the home.
"I was trying to go to sleep when I heard the trucks come through," McDaniels said, holding a small cage for his pit bull "Storm."
McDaniels, who recently moved from Mississippi, couldn't believe anyone would deliberately set fire near a residential area.
"It just hurts," McDaniels said as he watched flames sear the trees and palmetto brush around his one-story home.
"It just hurts," he said.