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Florida Wildfires: Suspected Arsonist Arrested

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PALM BAY, Fla. — Authorities arrested a man they say was seen throwing a Molotov cocktail into the woods Wednesday in this Atlantic coast town, where several homes have been gutted by wildfires this week.

Officials questioned Brian Crowder, who authorities allege set a small blaze that was quickly extinguished. They also asked the 31-year-old about larger wildfires that have found ample fuel in developments in the region, blazes he denied involvement with.

Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said he believed there was a "good possibility" Crowder would be charged with starting a small fire.

A resident alerted police after seeing Crowder throw an object from his car that sparked the small fire, Palm Bay Detective Ernie Diebel said. The object was a glass bottle containing a flammable liquid, Berger said.

Officers stopped Crowder's vehicle shortly afterward but he fled on foot, Diebel said. He was tracked through the woods with the help of residents who spotted him running past their homes, police said.

Records show that Crowder has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating to 1996. He was charged Wednesday with six probation violations.

A woman who answered the phone at a telephone listing for Crowder's mother declined to give a comment.

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 that the homes were frequently rented by different people and that they did not know anything about Crowder.

Authorities have said they believe the wildfires burning in Palm Bay and neighboring Malabar were set by an arsonist or arsonists.

Since the fires began Sunday, about 20 homes have been destroyed and 140 other structures damaged. The damage was estimated around $9.6 million, authorities said. Officials had earlier reported 40 homes destroyed.

Efforts to contain the fires, which have burned about 15 square miles, were improving, officials said.

Some residents tried to pick through charred remains of their homes for belongings Wednesday.

Firefighter Allen Civita's three-bedroom Palm Bay home burned to the ground Monday, leaving only metal bedsprings, melted wine glasses and the blackened hulk of the stove. He said a stranger kicked open the front door to grab photographs from the living room, kitchen and a bedroom before the flames took everything else.

"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.'"

In central Florida, officials investigated how a Navy fighter jet dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb a mile off target, sparking a wildfire in the Ocala National Forest. About 150 acres burned, according to the Naval Air Station Jacksonville. No structures were damaged, and no one was hurt, said Mike Drayton, a fire management officer for the Forest Service.

On the other side of the country, crews were trying to make headway Wednesday against a fire 45 miles northeast of Los Angeles that had forced the evacuation of a half-dozen vacation homes Tuesday, though most already were empty, authorities said. Flames came within 100 yards of some cabins, but none had been damaged.