PALM BAY, Fla. – As officials announced they had made gains in the wildfires ravaging Florida's Atlantic coast and arrested a second arson suspect, the man accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail said Thursday that he may have accidentally sparked a fire.
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.
Meanwhile, there were reports of a second arson arrest as Cocoa, Fla., police charged Margaret Jean Kaderabek, 56, with two felony counts of intentional burning of lands, according to a story in the Orlando Sentinel.
Police said Kaderabek told them she started three or four small fires because "she was bored" after watching news reports about the wildfires, according to the report.
Those fires were extinguished, and she is not believed to be connected to the larger fires that burned over the weekend, the Sentinel said.
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 30 homes were destroyed and 140 structures damaged.
"We had a real good night," said Todd Schroeder, spokesman for the state's Division of Forestry. He said an estimated 60 percent of the fires were contained.
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About 890 homes and businesses still were without power in surrounding Brevard County on Thursday morning, after officials had shut off electricity as a precaution. All power was expected to be restored by the end of the day, Florida Power & Light said. Twenty-two 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.
"People are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable again," Palm Bay Councilman Ed Geier said. "There's no big black clouds in the sky. It's beautiful blue up there."
Officials hoped good weather would help them get the blazes fully under control as police delved into their investigation of Crowder, who was arrested and questioned Wednesday.
"If we've got the right guy, then the investigation should end," Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said. "If we don't, the real guy is going to be coming out saying 'This is not right; he's getting all the credit for my work.' That's why we're very vigilant. We'll maintain that for several days, if not longer."
Berger said he had 50 to 60 officers on the streets searching for those acting suspiciously and had identified and tracked down offenders — both juvenile and adult — with arson records in the past five years.
Crowder is expected to be charged with setting a small fire in the area of the larger blazes.
Berger said there is 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 caused 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.
Berger said Crowder's mother told police he had a juvenile fascination with fire, and the man and his mom were having problems.
"Remember, it was Mother's Day that this occurred," Berger said of the larger blazes, which investigators said were set in a ring around the city. "There's been some tension between him and his mother. This could have been significant; we're looking at that aspect."
Crowder said 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 being held without bond.
Elsewhere, scattered fires still were burning around the state. A total of almost 26,000 acres — 40 square miles — were ablaze as of Thursday morning, 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 still were 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.