Blazes consume dozens of homes. 'By the time we finish one, there's another one on fire'.
Wind-whipped fires charred thousands of acres across Brevard and Volusia counties Monday, leaping from rooftop to rooftop in some neighborhoods, destroying at least 51 homes and injuring at least four firefighters.
The worst of the flames burned in Palm Bay, where desperate residents fought to save their homes with water from garden hoses and swimming pools. Confused students screamed as firefighters evacuated them from a high school. At least 18 blazes forced hundreds of residents from their homes.
Authorities think an arsonist or group of arsonists set as many as nine fires in that city. Embers sparked the rest.
"It's bad; it's just bad," said Yvonne Martinez, Palm Bay Police Department spokeswoman, as dense smoke surrounded the Bayside High School area on the city's southwest side.
"The wind is causing the fire to jump a half a mile at a time," she said.
Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency as of 4 p.m.
Major fires also burned in North and South Florida, as dry conditions put the entire state on alert.
Weather conditions may give firefighters some relief today. Winds on the coast were expected to slow to 10 to 15 mph, while sea breezes should bring cooler, moist air to the coast, according to a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Still, chances of rainfall are scant for the remainder of the week, leaving the pines and palmettos parched and ready to burn.
On Monday, early-morning humidity and mild temperatures calmed Central Florida's fires. Two in Cocoa Beach were almost completely contained by midday.
But as the day wore on, conditions worsened. Winds gusted to 30 mph and humidity sank. Palm Bay's Bayside High and Westside Elementary schools were evacuated. Nineteen school campuses that serve the city, including Bayside and Palm Bay High, were slated to be closed today.
The fires in Palm Bay erupted within 18 hours Sunday, appearing to form a ring around the city. Most were set close to roadsides.
"Somebody was very busy," said Palm Bay Fire Marshal Mike Couture.
A suspicious vehicle was seen in the area before Sunday's fires, but authorities did not describe it. There is a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the capture of the arsonist.
One Palm Bay firefighter was shocked by an electrical line and taken to a hospital, city officials said. Two other firefighters also were injured, but no details were available Monday night.
As Palm Bay struggled with the flames, more fires burned in nearby Malabar, growing from 2,000 acres to 3,000 Monday, Couture said.
Officers go door to door
The most destructive fires were on the south side of Palm Bay. Officers went door to door asking residents to grab what they could and leave immediately.
If they refused, they were asked to provide names of their next of kin, Martinez said.
As the blazes multiplied, residents equipped themselves to fight the flames on their own.
In southeast Palm Bay, a blizzard of fat embers fell through the sky, lighting fires in the woods between homes.
Orlando Dominguez, spokesman for Brevard County Fire Rescue, said it was one of the places where the fire was moving most aggressively.
"This fire is moving so fast and has such a wide area . . . you would literally have to put a firetruck at every home," Dominguez said.
There weren't enough trucks to go around, so Jennifer Beckert and her husband Jeremy made do by putting a cooler and buckets filled with water into the back of their pickup.
"Here we go again," Jennifer Beckert said.
Monday was the area's second day of flames, and friends and relatives joined with residents to form fire brigades.
Louis Moran, whose son-in-law Chris Warner lives on Whiting Street, said he came to the neighborhood to fight the flames late Monday. They managed to get the family's three children and three dogs to safety.
"What we're trying to do is save as much as we can," Moran said, adding that he has lived in Florida for many years and is used to the brush fires, "but nothing like this."
As the evening approached, flames spread and smoke thickened.
'We lost it!'
Near the intersection of Whiting and Babcock streets, seven men, each wearing T-shirts or bandannas over their mouths and noses, raced through the smoke, trying to save a home.
"We lost it! Back off, Junior; it's gone," one of the men shouted. "We lost it."
Despite the difficult conditions, firefighters made progress in Daytona Beach, where fires also erupted Sunday. About 200 firefighters from 13 agencies and public-works personnel battled the Bayberry blaze, which threatened the LPGA and Bayberry Lakes subdivisions on the west side of town. The fire was 55 percent contained as of Monday evening.
The Daytona Beach Fire Department lifted the evacuation order at 8 p.m. for the LPGA subdivision in Daytona Beach, but only residents with identification will be permitted to access LPGA Boulevard in that area. About 590 homes were included in the evacuation order.
A Daytona Beach firefighter was treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Although many fires were subdued, residents remained anxious. Near rural Friday Road in Cocoa, neighbors were weary from spending a sleepless night keeping watch over the flames.
Joan Good, 58, a hospice nurse, had perched at her front window of her home for the past 24 hours, keeping an eye on the smoldering woods across the street. Important papers, pajamas, a toothbrush and a bag of dog food for her two canines, Juanita and Meaka, sat in her car, just in case.
"There's nothing you can do," she said. "Water my house down? I've got thousands of trees around. It won't make any difference."
PHOTO: Fires threaten homes in the Palm Bay and Malabar areas Monday. The fires in Palm Bay had erupted within 18 hours Sunday, ringing the city.
HILDA PEREZ/ORLANDO SENTINEL.
PHOTO: Neighbors use shovels and garden hoses Monday to battle a blaze approaching a home near DeGroodt Road and Florence Street in Palm Bay.
JACOB LANGSTON/ORLANDO SENTINEL.
MAP: MAJOR HOT SPOTS
1 BAYBERRY FIRE
Size: 797 acres
Status: 55% contained as of 8pm Monday.
Size: About 240 acres.
Status: Largely under control, with some flare-ups Monday.
3 PALM BAY AREA
Size: About 6,000 acres in 3 areas as of 9pm Monday.
Status: Burning. More than 50 homes were destroyed. Two schools, Bayside High and Westside Elementary, were evacuated. All schools in Palm Bay , plus Palm Bay High, will be closed today.About 5500 residents were without power in the southeast portion of the city.
Keywords: CF VC FIRE DISASTER DAMAGE DESCRIPTION
Memo: Denise-Marie Balona, Susan Jacobson, Ludmilla Lelis, Sarah Lundy, Bianca Prieto and Gary Taylor of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Willoughby Mariano can be reached at 407-420-5171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.