Wildfire: Tipster chased suspect to help with arrest

Reporter: Alex Zequiera

PALM BAY, FL - Updated, THU 2:30 PM: The man who tipped off police to the wildfire arson suspect says he doesn't care about collecting a reward.

Matthew Samaco said after he left the Palm Bay police station where he gave detectives his full story.

Smaco was out watering his lawn early Wednesday morning when he saw a man throw a glass container out the car window starting a fire. He then called 911 as he chased after the suspect giving them a tag number and description of the man and the car.

Samaco says, "Why not give it back to the damn people? They lost everything they own. Why keep it? Money ain't (expletive) to me. The only matter is just putting somebody behind bars that needs to be there that's sick, that's ruined a lot of people's lives."

With the help of a K-9 unit police found the suspect, Brian Crowder, buried under a pile of leaves.

Crowder was arrested for outstanding warrants.  Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger says he believed there was a "good possibility" Crowder would be charged with starting a small fire in the area.

Berger says Crowder has denied being involved with the larger fires which began Sunday.

Since then, about 20 homes have been destroyed and 140 other structures damaged.

PALM BAY, FL - Updated, Wed 11:30 AM: The Palm Bay Police Department has a person of interest to at least one of the recent Florida wildfires. The suspect is identified Brian Crowder.

A witness says he saw Crowder crouched down trying to light some brush on fire. Police  say they confronted Crowder, and he took off running. They knocked on neighbor's doors trying to find him and eventually K-9  sniffed him out.  He was then taken into custody.

We're told Crowder has many outstanding warrants, and that's what he's been arrested for. Right now, he has not been charged with arson.

Crowder was injured in the foot chase and is being treated at a nearby hospital.

We'll keep you updated as we learn more.

PALM BAY, FL - Updated, Wed 10:30 AM: The Palm Bay Police Department is questioning a person of interest to at least one of the recent Florida wildfires. Police say they confronted him in a neighborhood, and he took off running. They knocked on neighbors' doors trying to find him, and, eventually, K-9  sniffed him out. He was then taken into custody.

So far, nine arson fires have been reported to officials, and 15 square miles of land have gone up in flames. Most of the fires are contained; however, hot spots are now the main concern.

Sixty-seven homes have burned to the ground, and 100 others reportedly are damaged. Those evacuated from their homes are waiting to hear when they can return.

Officials are reporting $10 million in damaged, but, thankfully, no series injures are reported.

PALM BAY, FL (CNN) - Updated, WED 9 AM: Most wildfires across Florida were contained Tuesday, including a blaze that charred more than 3,500 acres and caused $9.6 million in damage in the city of Palm Bay.

Officials were hoping that calm winds would prevail, allowing them to make more progress in battling the flames.

"We do have pockets of flare-up and live activity," said Yvonne Martinez, spokeswoman for the Palm Beach Fire Department.

In the Palm Bay area, 162 homes were damaged or destroyed, she said, and 62 of those are uninhabitable.

Wind conditions were better Tuesday, said Palm Bay Fire Marshal Mike Couture. Damage assessment teams were using a grid system to examine the scorched areas, he said.

"Obviously, conditions are continuing to be dry," Couture said. "We desperately need rain. We don't have any, and we're not projected to get any."

No mandatory evacuations were in place in Palm Bay, located in Brevard County. But Couture cautioned residents who have left not to return yet, saying they could interfere with damage assessment teams and crews attempting to restore power. A shelter has been opened in a church.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency earlier Monday as the fires spread, fed by drought conditions and strong winds. Crist activated the National Guard to help battle the blazes and help with evacuations.

As of Tuesday, 14 counties were affected by 108 wildfires, Crist told reporters, with 17,000 acres scorched. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved a federal grant to help the state recover from the fires.

"I just want to thank the people who are working hard on the ground," he said.

Four firefighters have been injured, Martinez said. A live power line fell on one Palm Bay firefighter, delivering a minor shock, officials said. He was flown to a hospital, where he was in stable condition Tuesday.

Two other firefighters from other agencies suffered heat exhaustion and dehydration Monday, but both were treated and released and were back on the job Tuesday, Martinez said. Details of the fourth firefighter's injuries were unknown, she said, but the injuries were not serious.

Couture said Tuesday that no deaths had resulted from the fire.

Schools in Palm Bay were closed Tuesday.

Police Chief Bill Berger told reporters authorities suspect the fires might have been deliberately set because they began within hours of each other in separate locations. "People do this for fascination, for thrills ... the word is 'sick,' " he said.

Calls regarding suspicious activity were pouring in to his department, and six investigators have been assigned to follow leads, he said.

Officials said Monday a $15,000 reward was in place for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for starting the fire.

Not all of Florida's drought-fueled fires, however, were contained. Dale Armstrong of the Florida Division of Forestry told reporters the Lowery fire in southern Brevard County had burned 4,800 acres as of Tuesday evening and was only 5 percent contained. That fire is in a rural area, where it is burning on county-owned land, he said.

A 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95 was closed Tuesday because of encroaching flames and heavy smoke, said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller.

A number of other communities have sent personnel and equipment to Palm Bay, Couture said.

"As the winds start to stay down ... we can do our job more efficient and quicker," he said, "and I think we're OK."

CNN's Nick Valencia, Patty Lane and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.

PALM BAY, FL (AP) - Updated, TUE 12:45 PM: Smoke and the proximity of the flames across Florida's Atlantic coast have closed off major highways in the area, including a 34-mile section of Interstate 95 south of the fires.

It's the third day that firefighters are working in Brevard County to stop flames that have scorched about 3,800 acres -- about 6 square miles -- in the neighboring towns of Palm Bay and Malabar. Four homes have been destroyed and about 70 damaged.

Governor Charlie Crist has declared a state of emergency, allowing Florida to use federal funds and bring local emergency workers under state control. It also allows Florida to call on other states for help, if necessary.

Firefighters may get some help. The National Weather Service says winds on the coast are expected to slow.

About 80 miles north in Daytona Beach, an 800-acre fire forced an evacuation order yesterday for about 500 homes. But residents have been allowed to return. No structures were damaged.

Updated, TUE 9 AM: Assessment teams plan to fan out around Palm Bay, Florida, on Tuesday to gauge the damage done by a wildfire that continues to burn.

City officials have estimated that flames damaged or destroyed about 50 homes, said Jim Stables, assistant chief of the Palm Bay Fire Department.

Investigators were looking into the possibility that an arsonist started the 3,500-acre blaze, officials said.

Mazziotti said a $10,000 reward was in place for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for starting the fire.

Investigators were acting on several tips, he said.

"I think its sick," Halie Vail, who had a neighbor lose a house, told CNN affiliate WFTV-TV. "I think they'll probably burn in hell. They created hell, they'll burn in hell for it."

Palm Bay Mayor John Mazziotti said the fire was burning about "three to four blocks from my place" and he had moved his family to a safer area.

"If there's smoke, you probably need to pack up and go someplace else because it's pretty dangerous," Mazziotti said.

The Brevard County city on Florida's Atlantic side has not announced mandatory evacuations, said Assistant Fire Chief John Stables.

"We're handling it on a case-to-case basis depending on the conditions of the homes and things like that," Stables said.

Stables and Mazziotti said the city was running short of resources to fight the fire.

"We've exhausted all local resources, and we're utilizing several resources from around the state," Stables said, adding that two helicopters with drop buckets from the state Division of Forestry were just not enough.

"We're at limited water as well," he said.

"We're in a really bad situation right now with the drought index," he said. "We have no rain, and in turn, this wind has caused us a great deal of issue with that as well."

Mazziotti, asked if the city had enough resources, said simply, "No."

Residents took it upon themselves to try to help each other out.

"I can't sit by and watch," resident Matt Call told CNN affiliate WKMG-TV. "I can't evacuate and run away. I have to step up."

Call and Robert Johnson were part of a group running to fire lines to help strangers.

"If it makes a difference of me saving one of my neighbors' homes by staying here and helping, then I stay here and fight," Call told WKMG.

"If this house goes, then it is going to jump to the next house and then the next house and then eventually to mine," Johnson told WKMG reporters.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency earlier Monday as the fires, fed by drought conditions and strong winds, spread. Crist activated the National Guard to help battle the blazes and help with evacuations.

Palm Bay Fire spokesman Yvone Martinez said three firefighters were injured -- including one who was airlifted from the scene -- but she did not know the nature of their injuries.

All 18 schools in Palm Bay were closed Tuesday. Parts of Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 1 in Brevard County that were closed because of smoke conditions have reopened.

Palm Bay wasn't the only place affected by the drought-fueled wildfires. Two other blazes in Brevard County burned about 200 acres in Cocoa, but were almost completely contained, authorities said.

And a 2,500-acre fire burned south of Palm Bay near Malabar and continued to flare up Tuesday morning, according to Brevard County Fire and Rescue spokesman Orlando Dominguez. That fire had destroyed at least four homes and damaged several others.

About 80 miles north, in Volusia County, a fire that had burned about 800 acres was 55 percent contained, according to the Daytona Beach Fire Department. Nearly 600 homes near LPGA Boulevard were evacuated, but the evacuation was lifted late Monday.

CNN's Nick Valencia, Patty Lane and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.

Updated, MON 11:45 AM: Hundreds of residents on Florida's Space Coast are being ordered to evacuate from their homes as firefighters struggle to contain wildfires burning in dry, windy weather.

Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller says helicopters dropped water Monday on parts of a fire that had burned between 500 and 600 acres in Daytona Beach.

Authorities have ordered about 500 homes in the northwest part of the city to be evacuated. No homes have been damaged. But officials warn that embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze.

The fire is about 20 percent contained. But Weller says firefighters' efforts will be challenged by high winds.

In neighboring Brevard County, a 2,000-acre fire destroyed two homes in Malabar. No one was injured. Another 250 acre fire is burning near Cocoa. Dozens of people have been evacuated.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Reporter: Alex Zequiera

Previously: Good news into the FOX 29 Newsroom in the past half hour. The portion of I-95 near Vero Beach that was closed after a threatening brush fire is now reopen.

One of four fires that began in Brevard and Volusia Counties spread south to our area.

The fire forcing FHP to shut down I-95 northbound starting at mile marker 147 all the way to the Space Coast.

But conditions have gotten better allowing them to reopen the Interstate.

Investigators believe the cause of the fire may be arson.

In Brevard County, more than 200 homeowners were forced to leave their homes, and, authorities say, another 400 homes near Daytona Beach are under evacuation orders, as well.

Florida Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller says between 500 to 600 acres burned in Volusia County. At one point, 4,000 people lost power due to the brush fires, but most have since had their power restored.

The Red Cross is providing temporary shelter for those displaced by the fires.

FHP does not believe any homes in the Indian River County area are threatened at this point.