Dewees Island residents praise coordinated effort to battle massive blaze

Firefighters work Wednesday morning at the scene of an overnight fire at Dewees Island.

BY ANDREW KNAPP aknapp@postandcourier.com

Dewees Island residents rejoiced Wednesday morning as they said an amazing and coordinated undertaking from volunteers and professionals halted a fire that had already destroyed two homes when it was first reported late Tuesday.

The blaze first was thought to be a brush fire, but when the 65-home island’s fire chief, Randy Snipes, arrived, one home that was under construction was already burned to the ground. Another multistory house, whose owners are part-time residents and were not home, was three-quarters involved, the chief said.

The effort quickly shifted to one of stopping the blaze from engulfing the two homes on either side of the inferno. In the end, porch furniture on one house sustained heat damage, but the two structures were saved.

The island, though remote, is equipped with two firetrucks, two full-time firefighters and plan for volunteers during emergencies.

After the first report around 9 p.m., residents were notified through telephone calls and were told to mobilize for a massive effort to stop the fire’s spread. Some of the first callers were on boats near the island, including one crew that was searching the ocean for a missing Mount Pleasant man whose skiff was found capsized earlier in the day.

The conflagration was seen from miles around.

Residents, who undergo monthly training for such situations, gathered at the island’s ferry landing and lined up golf carts ready to escort dozens of firefighters to the scene. Others provided water and food.

About 13 families stay on the island full time while many part-time residents also live in surrounding communities, such as Awendaw and Mount Pleasant. Those part-time residents rushed to the scene by boat to help.

“I think everything worked great last night,” Snipes said as two piles of rubble still smoldered near him this morning. “Everybody was helpful, and we were able to save two houses out of if, even though they were so close together.”

At the scene, still more volunteers assisted the island’s full-time firefighters by running hose lines from nearby fire hydrants or stomping on hundreds of ember-sparked “spot fires” that popped up in the brush.

Under construction codes, residents said homes are required to have sprinkler systems. But the house where the blaze started was incomplete and not yet equipped.

Chief Ann Graham from the Isle of Palms Fire Department and a small crew were the first outside helpers to arrive by boat about 20 minutes after the first call.

Jim Anderson, an island resident, rushed to a neighboring home downwind from the blaze. He climbed to the roof and sprayed embers and larger chunks of burning wood falling on the house with a garden hose that he had punched through a screen window.

The island’s two full-time firefighters and volunteers were assisted by crews from Isle of Palms, Mount Pleasant, Awendaw, Sullivan’s Island and the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad, as well as other agencies.

The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately known. Some fuel tanks contributed to its spread.

No one was injured. “Everybody did something last night,” Anderson said. “And now, everybody feels the hurt.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.