Calm winds limit spread of wildfire; ash blows in N.C.
Posted April 24, 2009 4:33 a.m. EDT
Updated April 24, 2009 6:51 a.m. EDT
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Firefighters say calm winds overnight allowed them to hold steady against a wildfire that has burned 31 square miles near one of South Carolina's busiest tourist areas.
State Forestry Commission spokeswoman Holly Welch said early Friday that there was no indication that additional homes had burned in the overnight hours.
The blaze that started Wednesday west of Myrtle Beach has destroyed about 70 homes and damaged about 100 others.
Welch said 30 firefighters manned containment lines overnight. Officials estimated late Thursday that the blaze was about 40 percent contained. It was expected to move north, away from the busiest stretch of beach hotels.
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 because the fire's embers can travel far distances before landing to create blazes of their own, said Mike Bocco, the state Forestry Commission official overseeing the fight.
"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 over the past two days and then veered north, heading away from the high-rise hotels that line Myrtle Beach.
“All the trees around me on three sides were burning. My husband grabbed me and my shoe came off. He wouldn't even let me pick up my shoe,” homeowner Atissa Campbell said.
By early Friday, emergency management officials said a few hot spots had flared up.
Residents of a coastal North Carolina county are being cautioned to drive carefully because of dense smoke and ash that has blown across the state line.
Scott Garner with Brunswick County emergency management says motorists should be careful Friday morning because of limited visibility.
Firefighters in the town of Calabash just across the state line from North Myrtle Beach have shuttled water to the fires. Garner says some North Carolina firefighters, five fire trucks and five ambulances have been sent to help.
Some North Carolina residents have complained of breathing problems.
Tourists and year-round residents alike scattered from Myrtle Beach, whose surrounding area is the anchor of 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.
There was some good news late Thursday, when Forestry Commission officials said the fire had been 40 percent contained because of fire breaks constructed in crucial areas. But spokeswoman Holly Welch said 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.
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. Throughout the night, Bozzo said crews would be working to create firebreaks toward the Cherry Grove area, toward which officials say the fire will creep early Friday.
"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," he said.
The National Weather Service said officials there expect winds to become calm early Friday morning, slowing the spread of the fire, but allowing dense smoke to settle over the region. Winds should pick up again after sunrise Friday, reaching speeds close to 15 mph by the afternoon.
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 motors slowing the 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.