S.C. wildfire may accelerate after calm
Blaze has torched 31 square miles, destroyed at least 70 homes
The Associated Press, April 24, 2009
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - Spurting embers from a wildfire destroyed dozens of homes but left others among them untouched as it began turning away from the most-populated stretch of South Carolina's beaches.
Firefighters expected the blaze to intensify Friday and turn northward after it destroyed about 70 homes and damaged 100 others, said Mike Bocco, the state Forestry Commission official overseeing the fight.
But calm winds overnight allowed firefighters to hold steady against the flames that have burned 31 square miles near one of South Carolina's busiest tourist areas.
There was no indication that additional homes had burned in the early morning hours Friday, said Holly Welch, a spokeswoman for the state Forestry Commission.
"It's looking really good so far," Welch said. "We had a really calm night, there wasn't a whole lot of wind."
No injuries have been reported.
About 30 firefighters manned containment lines overnight and were able to reinforce some of them, she said.
Welch said the blaze was about 50 percent contained early Friday but noted the picture could darken with the slightest change in the weather.
"Where we think we have things secured, that could all go out the window," she said.
State's worst fire in three decades
South Carolina's worst fire in more than three decades has cut a path four miles wide through tinder-dry scrubland but skipped its way through housing developments, decimating some homes while leaving their neighbors untouched.
That's not unusual, Bocco said, because the fire's embers can travel far distances before landing to create blazes of their own.
"A lot of times, the big, raging fire that burns through a forest is not what actually burns the homes down," he said. "The wind is picking up those embers, blowing them several hundred yards into the lawns, into the pine straw mulch, around the homes, landing in that straw, igniting, and burning the house down."
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 fire got within 1 1/2 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, a distance Bocco said he hoped to maintain Friday with intensive prevention work already completed to the north.
The blaze scorched more than 31 square miles but headed away from the high-rise hotels that line Myrtle Beach.
Tourists, residents flee Myrtle Beach
Tourists and year-round residents alike scattered from Myrtle Beach, which anchors the state's $16 billion annual tourist industry. College students are drawn here for a cheap spring break destination, and families fill miles of budget hotels in the summer.
Winds blowing inland from the Atlantic coast have been feeding the fire and pushing it north, and officials feared the blaze could continue to grow.
"We've got a good line up ahead of that right now, and hopefully we can contain it there, and the winds won't give us a problem as far as blowing embers across the water," Bocco said.
The National Weather Service said winds could reach speeds close to 15 mph by the afternoon, with some higher gusts.
On Thursday, a column of smoke rose on the inland side of the Intracoastal Waterway, a canal as wide as a football field that separates the city's main drag from homes. At times the smoke seemed to block out the sun, casting an orange sheen on the vehicles of motorists slowing to gawk at the scene.
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.
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