South Carolina Wildfire Destroys Homes

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina's biggest
wildfire in more than three decades - a blaze four miles wide -
destroyed dozens of homes Thursday and threatened some of the
area's world-famous golf courses at the height of the spring
tourist season.

The flames, fed by tinder-dry scrubland, forced hundreds of
people to flee, and some took shelter in the House of Blues
honkytonk.

The fire got within 1½ miles of Route 17, the main coastal road
that links beachfront towns and is lined with fast-food
restaurants, beachwear stores and trinket shops. By Thursday
evening, the flames were about 3 miles west of the highway.

The blaze scorched about 19,600 acres, or about 31 square miles,
over the past two days and then veered north, heading away from the
high-rise hotels that line Myrtle Beach. There were no reports of
injuries, and authorities said they had not determined what sparked
the flames.

Fueled by dry underbrush and highly combustible swamp peat, the
blaze leveled about 70 homes and damaged 100 others early Thursday
as the fire jumped a four-lane highway. The flames also forced
authorities to evacuate 2,500 people. Some returned home Thursday
evening while, at the same time, a couple of miles north, police
told people to leave 30 other homes, an order that was lifted after
a few hours.

Horry County officials said in a statement Thursday night the
fire was 40 percent contained. Holly Welch, a spokeswoman for the
South Carolina Forestry Commission, said crews had successfully
used plows to hold off a portion of the blaze but noted that the
situation could worsen if winds were to start blowing Friday in an
unexpected direction.

"While we think we have things secured, that could all go out
the window tomorrow," she said.

Much of the damage was concentrated at Barefoot Resort, a
sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses
separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the
Intracoastal Waterway.

"The house is completely gone," said Rachel Plaga, a
38-year-old nurse, who later began sobbing. "It was like
Armageddon back there. There was nothing. Everything was gone. My
whole life. My kid's whole life. It was horrific."

Another woman who broke down in tears had to be helped to a seat
by a Red Cross worker.

Garry Alderman, Horry County's fire chief, described some homes
as left with only "skeletal remains."

The fire appeared to hopscotch through the neighborhood, which
was draped in a thick haze, and some of the rubble still smoldered
hours later.

One home was burned to its slab, while the brick house next door
appeared undamaged, an American flag still flying.

At another home, the car in the driveway was charred, but the
only damage to the house was melted vinyl siding. At one address,
everything burned except the garage door, which remained standing.

After they were evacuated, some 200 residents spent the rest of
the day in and around the nearby House of Blues, where officials
gave them updates. Hours later, they were ushered inside to watch a
video of the fire damage because they were not yet allowed to
return to their homes. In all, some 450 people sought help at area
shelters.

Officials said the blaze appeared to die out at Barefoot Resort
by midmorning, only to move parallel to the waterway and away from
the area's major golf courses. Authorities worried it could jump
the channel, a canal as wide as a football field that separates the
city's main drag from the homes of retirees and people who help run
the area's golf courses, hotels and other businesses.

Just a few miles south along the coast, people were unaffected.
Golfers kept their tee times and tourists spread out on the
beaches. Hotel managers, who offered vouchers to the evacuees, said
they could not even smell the smoke.

As ash fell, the governor issued a state of emergency, and
schools closed early. But North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley
managed to promote the area while announcing the number of homes
destroyed.

"Certainly come on to the Grand Strand area and enjoy
yourself," Hatley said.

But along Route 17 near the fire, businesses lost customers, and
the thick smoke chased mini-golf customers from Gail Taylor's
Hawaiian Village Golf. She had only had two customers all day -
both evacuees who were trying to kill time.

"I knew it was going to be like this when I opened up this
morning," Taylor said. "People aren't going to come out and play
golf when they're scared."

The fire started several miles inland Wednesday, near
subdivisions and golf courses that have been carved from forest and
swamps over decades. On Thursday, state forestry officials said
they issued two citations to someone for starting a fire that got
out of control, but it was unclear whether that person had started
the massive blaze.

The area remains prone to wildfires that spring up in the woods
and scrub. Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said
this week's fire was the worst blaze since some 47 square miles
burned in 1976.

Dense vegetation made the fire hard to fight, Cartner said.
Crews used plows and tractors to cut firebreaks through heavily
grown patches called Carolina Bays.

The shallow, egg-shaped depressions pockmark the coast and range
in size from a few acres to thousands of acres. They 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 the only thing that can extinguish
such fires, said state Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins.

About 100 firefighters joined backhoes and six airplanes
fighting the fire. "We have the resources. We need to get a
weather break," said William Bailey, public safety director for
North Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area is the anchor of the
state's $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college
students looking for a cheap spring break destination and families
who fill miles of budget hotels in the summer.

Tens of thousands of golfers visit each year, and some of the
region's courses are among the best in the nation.

Maureen Hodge and her 79-year-old husband spent the past five
weeks enjoying a golf vacation at Barefoot Landing until early
Thursday. Hodge, 62, said they left with only what they were
wearing and their medications.

The Bangor, Maine, resident said she would like to get back for
her golf clubs.

"I don't know if we'll ever come back," she said, laughing.
"But this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."


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