DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dry, windy weather fueled several wildfires on Florida's central Atlantic coast Monday, damaging more than 50 homes and driving hundreds of residents away as the governor declared a state of emergency.
Fires in Palm Bay in Brevard County damaged about 50 homes and scorched 3,500 acres, or about 5½ square miles. Palm Bay spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez said all 18 schools in Palm Bay, including charter schools, would be closed Tuesday.
"Everytime I turn around another house is on fire. We don't have enough resources on our own to do a job like this," Martinez said.
In nearby Malabar, a 3,000-acre blaze destroyed at least four homes, including the house Butch Vanfleet built in 1980 and tried in vain to protect with a garden hose.
Vanfleet, 59, said the fire had reached his doorstep when he and his family fled Sunday evening. All that stood Monday was the chimney and a stone wall.
Vanfleet said he will rebuild.
"It's devastation," he said. "All you see is nothing but ash in between the palm trees and the palmetto. There's no grass. The fire just came so quickly, we barely got out of there."
The Florida Highway Patrol shut down a 34-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Brevard County. U.S. Highway 1 also was closed in that area, and it was not known when it will reopen, FHP spokeswoman Kim Miller said.
"The fires have picked up in Malabar so it's just heavy, thick black smoke and it's right at driver level," Miller said.
One person may be responsible for the blaze, said Ernie Dieble, an arson investigator with the Palm Bay Police Department. A witness saw someone in a car drop something into an open field, and the fire started shortly afterward, he said.
To the north in Daytona Beach, about 800 acres had burned by Monday afternoon, said Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller.
A Palm Bay firefighter was taken to a hospital and held overnight for precaution, but seems to be fine, authorities said. A Daytona Beach firefighter was also treated at the scene for minor injures.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management said in an e-mail that three responders were injured. It was unknown whether the two were among the three listed by the state. Mike Stone, emergency management spokesman, said he had no additional information on the injuries.
Authorities ordered about 500 homes in the northwest part of the city to be evacuated, but residents were allowed to return Monday evening. No homes were reported damaged, though officials warned that embers could fly more than a mile from the blaze. A 5-mile stretch of road through Daytona Beach was shut down because the fire was too close.
Ray Ademski, 68, left his home with his wife and their important papers when he saw columns of smoke Sunday night around their subdivision. He hosed down the roof and turned on the sprinklers in his yard before heading off to a hotel.
"I could feel the heat from both sides," said Ademski, who returned by bicycle Monday to survey the damage. "The smoke was going straight into my eyes. It was terrible."
By Monday, the skyline was free of the thick smoke that filled it the previous night, but firefighters were wary of flare-ups in the smoldering embers.
The fire was about 55 percent contained, but firefighters' efforts would be challenged by high winds and lower humidity, Weller said.
"The risk of this fire breaking out is very high, so the crews are continuing to work very hard," Weller said. "By no means is this fire safe."
Firefighters also contained two smaller blazes near Cocoa that damaged four homes and two commercial structures, officials said.
Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday. The move allows Florida to use federal funds and the National Guard, brings local emergency workers under state control and allows Florida to call on other states for help.