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North Myrtle Beach residents return home after wildfire

Residents in the Barefoot Landing development began returning home Thursday evening, more than 12 hours after a wildfire forced them to flee in the middle of the night.

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NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Residents in the Barefoot Landing development began returning home Thursday evening, more than 12 hours after a wildfire forced them to flee in the middle of the night.

Police banged on doors to awaken residents as strong winds late Wednesday helped the blaze cut a 4-mile-wide swath through forests and scrub toward the sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.

No injuries were reported.

"All of the trees around the three sides of us were burning," Barefoot Landing resident Atissa Campbell said. "My husband grabbed me, my shoe came off, and he wouldn't even let me (stop to) pick up my shoe."

Campbell said she banged on her neighbors' doors at 1:30 a.m. to inform them of the approaching fire.

"They were sound asleep – not a peep out of them," she said. "We woke everybody up."

The wildfire had burned 15,500 acres – more than 23 square miles – by 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the South Carolina Division of Emergency Management. Sixty-nine homes had been destroyed – all in North Myrtle Beach – and another 100 were damaged.

The cause of the fire, which started Wednesday in a wooded area west of the beach, had not been determined.

Acrid smoke and flecks of ash filled the air Thursday morning, but most businesses along the Grand Strand remained open. North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley said the fire shouldn't affect the start of the summer tourist season in a few weeks.

"It is not affecting the majority of golf courses. There should be no reason that anyone is canceling their vacation," Hatley said.

Schools in North Myrtle Beach closed at 10:30 a.m., and students whose parents couldn't pick them up were bused to nearby Loris, S.C.

Gov. Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency for Horry County.

"I've never seen anything this bad," Horry County Fire Chief Garry Alderman said, describing some homes as left with only "skeletal remains."

A statewide burning ban was implemented, and various resources were called in to battle the fire, State Forester Gene Kodama said.

  • Seventy-five state Forestry Commission firefighters were dispatched to Horry County.
  • A South Carolina Air National Guard helicopter was deployed with a bucket to drop water on the blaze.
  • The North Carolina Army National Guard sent two Blackhawk helicopters with 600-gallon buckets to douse the fire.
  • Neighboring Brunswick County, N.C., sent three tankers, six fire engines and six brush trucks, as well as five ambulances to help with emergency calls.

Officials in Brunswick County also issued a burning ban to limit the amount of smoke in the region.

About 2,500 people in a four-mile stretch on the western side of the waterway were told to leave their homes overnight, North Myrtle Beach spokeswoman Nicole Aiello said.

"We just got out of bed, tried to bundle ourselves together (and) tried to find the cats," resident Alan Godfrey said.

"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."

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 smell of smoke was pervasive.

"What we have on is what we got away with," said Sherlene Pinnix, 63.

"We're safe, and everything can be replaced except people," resident Jim Singleton said.

About 440 people remained in shelters Thursday evening.

Hatley said area motels had donated more than 500 rooms to house evacuees, and Wal-Mart had donated toiletries.

Flames jumped highways and walls of smoke engulfed tourist attractions as 30 mph gusts blew toward the ocean. Officials said they hoped the Intracoastal Waterway would act as a natural firebreak to protect more populated areas closer to the beach.

Kodama said the flames moved so fast that two firefighters were overtaken by the fire late Wednesday. They deployed special protection tents and were uninjured, he said.

The Forestry Commission also lost a bulldozer, which became bogged down in the soil and couldn't escape the fire, he said.

William Bailey, the public safety director for North Myrtle Beach, said the fire was about 75 to 80 percent contained in the Barefoot Landing development by Thursday afternoon. The success of containment efforts elsewhere in Horry County was unknown.

Because the fire had been beaten back from Barefoot Landing, some residents were allowed to return to the neighborhood. But Bailey said officials wouldn't tolerate any curiosity-seekers, noting authorities would order people gawking at damage back out of the development.

Officials said they would decide by 10 a.m. Friday whether to reopen the remainder of Barefoot Landing to residents.

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.

Kodama said crews hoped to build a line around the fire to contain it and then wait it out while the peat continues to burn underground.

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, subdivisions and golf courses have been carved from forest and swamps over decades and the area remains 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 at Tilly Swamp Baptist Church, midway between Conway and North Myrtle Beach, where a shelter had been set up when fire threatened a subdivision.

As a prayer meeting went on inside, Jo Hillman, 52, and her husband, Chuck, recalled the tense moments as the fire started spreading.

"First they said 'You've got 15 minutes.' Then they said 'Get out now,'" she said.