Police say Brian Crowder, 31, lobbed a Molotov cocktail into tinder-dry woods Wednesday, and set several other fires to confuse officers who chased him. Each of those blazes was immediately extinguished, and police have not connected Crowder to the larger fires that destroyed homes but are now more under control.
Still, police chief Bill Berger called Crowder "a prime suspect" in a string of fires intentionally set around the city Sunday. Investigators recommended he be charged with three counts of intentionally setting fire to public land, each carrying up to three years in prison. Prosecutors will ultimately determine the charges filed.
Crowder told reporters watching as police led him to a transport van that he may have accidentally sparked a fire, and ran because he was driving without a license.
"I believe that I accidentally may have - may have - started by tossing a cigarette out the door," said Crowder.
Kepler Funk, who represented Crowder at a short bond hearing, fears the public has rushed to judgment against him. He noted police were still looking for other suspects, and Crowder wasn't being accused of the destructive fires.
"People are losing their homes. It's serious, it's horrible, it's tragic," Funk said. "But it's too quick for anyone to jump to the conclusion that this is the man that is in fact responsible for all that devastation."
Berger said Crowder's mother told police he had a juvenile fascination with fire, and the man and his mom were having problems.
"Remember, it was Mother's Day that this occurred," Berger said of the larger blazes, which started Sunday. "There's been some tension between him and his mother. This could have been significant; we're looking at that aspect."
Records show Crowder has drug, burglary and automobile theft convictions dating from 1996.
Berger said four teams of 10 to 12 investigators on Thursday began interviewing everyone in Brevard County with a history of arson arrests.
Meanwhile, firefighters continued making major gains against the flames, enough that schools closed for two days reopened Thursday, electricity was being restored and many residents had returned to the area where about 30 homes were destroyed and 140 structures damaged.
Todd Schroeder, spokesman for the state's Division of Forestry, estimated the fires were 60 percent contained, up from 40 percent a day earlier. Winds had died down and humidity was up above 90 percent.
Less than a dozen customers were still without power late Wednesday, Florida Power & Light said.
"People are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable again," Palm Bay Councilman Ed Geier said. "There's no big black clouds in the sky. It's beautiful blue up there."
Elsewhere, scattered fires were still burning around the state. A total of almost 26,000 acres - 40 square miles - were ablaze as of Thursday morning, according to an emergency management report.
Aside from the fires in Palm Bay and Malabar, the majority of the fires were in Glades County. In an area around Lake Okeechobee, roughly 11,000 acres had burned or were still burning, though no structures had been damaged.