Investigators are searching for one or more arsonists who apparently started a string of fires around a city on Florida's Atlantic coast, destroying 62 homes and damaging about 100 more, a police chief said Tuesday.
Palm Bay police were working with the state fire marshall's office and Brevard County Fire Rescue to investigate who set an estimated nine fires that spread into a larger, uncontrollable blaze.
"Some are caused by embers that are flying, but the locations of the fires indicated that these were initiated separately, which makes us firmly believe that an individual or individuals was involved in setting those," Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said.
A witness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field Monday, and a fire started shortly afterward, an arson investigator said.
Orlando Dominguez, Brevard County Fire Department PIO, said during a press conference Tuesday that while the fires appear suspicious, the primary focus today is to contain the fire.
"It is quite suspicious because there have been no lightening strikes in the past few days, but that doesn't mean fire was intentionally set," Dominguez said. "It could be dry conditions or a cigarette out a window. Right now our primary focus is containing the fire, and then our focus will be on what started the fire."
"We do not like losing homes," Dominguez went on to say. "We take that personally."
Officials are offering a $15,000 reward for information about the fires, or how they were started.
Firefighters in Brevard County were trying for the third day to contain the fires that have scorched thousands of acres in Palm Bay and neighboring Malabar.
Though the high winds fueling the flames Monday had slowed significantly, officials worried about overnight flare-ups and the flames spreading quickly in the dry conditions.
"We desperately need rain," said Palm Bay Fire Marshal Mike Couture. "We don't have any, and we're not projected to get any anytime soon."
All 18 schools in Palm Bay, including charter schools, were closed Tuesday. Smoke and the proximity of the flames have caused the intermittent closure of major highways in the area, including a 34-mile section of Interstate 95 south of the fires that was closed again midmorning Tuesday.
"Flames are coming onto the interstate," Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller said.
The worst fires raged uncontrolled in Malabar, while officials said they had "a majority" of the Palm Bay fires contained.
Neighborhoods built into dense woods were surrounded by ashes, twisted limbs and charred, slender tree trunks where the fires raged through. Many homes, however, were able to be saved.
Angel Pagan, a 35-year-old salesman, watched Tuesday as firefighters hosed down the smoldering woods surrounding his home. A night earlier, he neighbors used garden hoses and buckets of water to douse the flames. Pagan sent his wife and their young sons, ages 1 year old and 1 month old, to stay with a relative.
"I cannot believe it — my house was surrounded, and my house did not go up," Pagan said. "It's pure luck, and God."
Across the street, a stucco home was charred and crumbling. On it was duct-taped a bright red note from the building inspector: Totaled.
"We saved a lot of them. The fire department got here and their house was already on fire," Pagan said, gesturing across the street.
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. Self lost his backyard fence and was without electricity Tuesday afternoon, but he said he considers himself fortunate.
"It looks like a little war zone," Self said of the area. "And we're lucky compared to a lot of people. I'm very lucky. I drove around this morning and saw a bunch of houses just totaled to the ground. It's unbelievable, it really is."
Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to tour the area where he has declared a state of emergency. Federal officials Tuesday authorized funding to reimburse the state's firefighting costs in Brevard County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.