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FL wildfires damage 150 homes

At least 30 homes near Melbourne destroyed, many owners without insurance


"It's just horrible…awful. . .I've been driving around all night and there are places where there used to be houses that are just piles of ash and the woods all around them are in flames"

—Deputy Mayor Ed Geier

Deputy Mayor Ed Geier stood in the parking lot of Bayside High School a few hours before dawn earlier this week after the fires – all nine of which have been deemed to have been intentionally set – began burning out of control in Palm Bay, FL, and shook his head.

"It's just horrible…awful," he said. "I've been driving around all night and there are places where there used to be houses that are just piles of ash and the woods all around them are in flames."

Palm Bay, located south of Melbourne on Florida's east coast, is 101 square miles of neat clusters of modest homes nestled in between what was, until last weekend, lots of green spaces. The green, in many locations, is now black and ashy – a smoldering negative image of what was once there.

Some 4,300 acres of woods, mostly pine and saw palmetto, were charred within the city limits - in the surrounding unincorporated areas around the city, the figure neared 10,000 acres. More tragically, 30 homes were completely destroyed and 120 more were damaged by the flames. Geier said he fears the economy may have produced an additional casualty – many fire victims have told him they had let their homeowners insurance lapse in order to save money.

"We haven't done any assessment yet, but a lot more people than I would have liked said that to me," he noted.

Florida is experiencing an exceptionally dry spring. Humidity levels are regularly below 30 percent with winds gusting on some days to more than 20 miles per hour for hours on end. It's a firefighter's nightmare.

Palm Bay firefighter Greg Thompson said he had worked two and a half days straight with an hour or two nap here and there on the hard sidewalk outside the high school cafeteria before he got a 12 hour break in fighting the blaze. In the three years of putting out fires, he said, he had never seen anything like the flames that kept just ahead of their efforts to put them out.

"It's the worst thing I've ever seen," he said. "And a lot of pretty senior guys have said the same thing."

Firefighters from across the state have converged on the city to help extinguish the fires, which are now estimated at about 60 percent contained. The winds have died down quite a bit since the first night when embers from the fires blew from dry spot to dry spot igniting pine needles, brush, power poles and, tragically, cars and houses. With the help of the Florida Division of Forestry, which sent in a team of experts to oversee the effort, the firefighters are in the "mop up" mode of making sure the fires, now under control, are fully extinguished.

But as the frantic work of protecting thousands of houses from ravaging flames moves at a more methodical pace, the police department is working on making sure all the survivors of the fires are connected with the appropriate resources and on finding the person or persons responsible for setting the fire. One man is already in custody, but the investigation is still continuing.

Police chief Bill Berger said the survivors of arson may qualify for special compensation to cover the cost of mental health counseling. Because widespread power outages have kept many in the city from accessing television or Internet news that would make them aware of the available services, some victims' advocates are going door to door in town to tell people about it.

The first night after the fires began, the Red Cross shelter at Our Lady of Grace Church in Palm Bay housed about 114 people, by the second night the number was down to 40. Now, there is no one left staying there, Jane Bowden of the Space Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross said. Still people from the community continue to drop off food and monetary assistance for the fire victims. Those who lost everything and those who are returning home to damage and no electricity have come to the shelter to accept a bit of help. The shelter will remain open to provide a place for victims to find the assistance they need from agencies offering help.

For the most part, the media that descended on the quiet town while the flames lapped at the houses have gone home. Firefighters are putting out the last of the burns. And the residents, their homes and psyches damaged by the experience, are pulling together to move on.

The landscape is still arid and rain is not in the forecast any time soon. The potential for more fires remains high in Palm Bay and across much of the state.

"I'd have to say that we would have to expect fires at this time of year," said Senior Forester Dale Armstrong of the forestry division. "We can only hope for some rain."

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Related Links:

Florida Division of Forestry's Fire Management Information Systems (FMIS) Internet Mapping Tool

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