Florida Police Arrest Suspected Wildfires Arsonist

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A man authorities believe may have set at least some of the wildfires along Florida's Atlantic coast is in custody on suspicion of arson.

Brian Crowder, 31, described as a white male with sandy blond hair who weighs 185 pounds, was apprehended about 9 a.m. EDT Wednesday after a foot chase, according to Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger.

A resident alerted police after 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, Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said.

"At 4:18 this morning we know for a fact an attempted arson took place," Berger said. "An accelerant in a glass bottle was thrown out of a dark vehicle and that actually started a fire. Brian Crowder was observed by one of our officers in the dark vehicle."

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The resident described a dark car, and officers stopped Crowder's vehicle shortly afterward. Crowder got out of his car and fled, Diebel said.

Officers tracked Crowder through the woods with the help of other residents who spotted him running past their homes, police said.

A woman who answered the phone at a telephone listing for Crowder's mother refused to speak to a reporter. 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 the homes were frequently rented by different people, and they did not know anything about Crowder.

Records show, however, that he has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating from 1996. He was charged Wednesday with six probation violations. He was being treated at a hospital for minor injuries caused by a police dog when officers took him into custody, Berger said.

Berger could not confirm that Crowder was at the scene of the arson that started the earlier fires, but said his vehicle is similar to one seen near the location where one of those other fires was set.

"We highly suspect that arson was involved in these other fires and this was an arson with intent, no doubt," Berger said. "Many times in these arsons, it’s not one person. This individual is possibly connected to the previous one."

Officials were waiting to question Crowder about the wildfires that have found ample fuel in developments where the state has not held controlled burns to cut back vegetation.

Since the fires began Sunday about 20 homes have been destroyed and 160 other structures damaged. The damage was estimated at approximately $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 that have burned about 15 square miles were improving, officials said. Still, major highways in the area were 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.

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.

A firefighter was among the residents trying to pick through charred remains of their homes for belongings on Wednesday.

Allen Civita's three-bedroom Palm Bay home burned to the ground on Monday, leaving only metal bedsprings, melted wine glasses and the blackened hulk of the stove. A stranger kicked open the front door to grab photographs from the living room, kitchen and a bedroom before the flames took everything, said the firefighter and paramedic for the St. Lucie County Fire District.

"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."'

Meanwhile, 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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.