South Carolina wildfire burns homes near popular beach area

Thursday, April 23rd 2009, 11:36 am
By: News 9

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) -- A coastal wildfire spread early Thursday toward one of the busiest tourist stretches in South Carolina, burning dozens of homes and forcing hundreds to flee in the middle of the night. No injuries were reported.
   Police banged on doors to awaken residents as strong winds helped the blaze cut a four-mile-wide swath through forests and scrub toward the Barefoot Landing development, a sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.
   "It was like something out of a movie," said Danielle Prater, 25, of Charlotte, N.C., who woke her aunt and uncle at 1:30 a.m. after seeing flames several feet high racing through a neighbor's back yard. "I ran and got them and we got out of there as fast as we could."
   Officials hoped the waterway would act as a natural firebreak to protect more populated areas closer to the beach. State officials said as many as 70 homes had been destroyed and Garry Alderman, the county fire chief, described some as left with only "skeletal remains."
   "I've never seen anything this bad," he said.
   The governor declared a state of emergency for the county.
   About 2,500 people in a four-mile stretch on the western side of the waterway were told to leave their homes overnight, said North Myrtle Beach spokeswoman Nicole Aiello. Shelters were set up at North Myrtle Beach City Hall and the House of Blues, where about 50 people watched a television over the bar looking for news updates. More than 100 others milled about, some waiting in their cars outside, where a white haze settled over the parking lot and the acrid smell of smoke was pervasive.
   "What we have on is what we got away with," said Sherlene Pinnix, 63.
   A cause of the fire, which started a day earlier in a wooded area west of the beach, had not been determined. The governor's office said more than 15,000 acres, or about 23 square miles, had been scorched by early Thursday morning.
   Flames jumped highways and walls of smoke engulfed tourist attractions as 30 mph gusts blew toward the ocean. Winds were expected to be weaker Thursday, but officials still feared the blaze could jump the waterway.
   Besides the wind, Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said crews were having trouble getting to the flames because of the dense vegetation and were using plows and tractors to cut paths to it.
   Adding to the problem were heavily vegetated patches called Carolina Bays that caught fire and fueled the blaze.
   The shallow, egg-shaped depressions pockmark the coast and range in size from a few to thousands of acres. The bays are densely filled with plant life and often have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks. Tropical downpours are often needed to extinguish such fires, said state Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins.
   "Once you get a fire in a bay, it's very, very hard to put out," he said.
   The area is the anchor of the state's $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college students for its low-cost spring break and families who fill miles of budget beachfront hotels along the coast from Memorial through Labor Day. Tens of thousands of golfers visit each year, and some of the region's courses are among the most highly regarded in the nation.
   Just off the coast, subdivisons and golf courses have been carved from forest and swamps over decades and the area remain prone to wildfires that spring up in the woods and scrub. Cartner said it was the worst blaze since some 30,000 acres, or 47 square miles, burned in 1976.
   On Wednesday, gray-white smoke engulfed the restaurant row between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. It looked like a winter fog, with car headlights and neon signs peeking through the haze. Several miles west of the tourist strip, 15 people gathered in a church shelter set up when their subdivision was threatened.
   At a shelter set up Wednesday when the fire threatened a subdivision, Jo Hillman, 52, joined her husband, Chuck, and 13 other people at a shelter set up at the Tilly Swamp Baptist Church about midway between Conway and North Myrtle Beach.
   As a prayer meeting went on inside, Jo Hillman and her husband recalled the tense moments as the fire started spreading.
   "First they said 'You've got 15 minutes.' Then they said 'Get out now,"' said Jo Hillman, 52.