Everyone helped

On Wednesday morning, Dewees Island Fire Chief Randy Snipes hosed down the smoldering remains of a blaze that destroyed two homes and scorched the earth around them the night before.

DEWEES ISLAND — Yell “fire” here, and people don’t run away. They jump into their golf carts, then into action.

That’s what happened Tuesday night when a home construction site caught fire on this 65-home island accessible only by private ferry or personal boat.

The flames scorched nearby brush and quickly enveloped another multistory house. Heat started searing the two homes on each side of the conflagration.

But as a requirement of living here, residents must be versed in emergency response. And they had trained for this.

Men and women stretched hoses from the island’s two firetrucks or watched the pressure level for the water system feeding the hydrants. Clutching shovels, others smothered the hundreds of “spot fires” ignited by wind-whipped embers.

At the ferry landing nearly 2 miles away, residents lined up dozens of electric golf carts — the only approved method of motored transportation for this affluent, conservation-minded community.

As mainland firefighters arrived by boat, cart drivers shuttled them to the scene.

“Everyone on the island was out participating, and nobody panicked,” said Anne Anderson, a member of one of 13 families who live here full time. “It was more orderly than our plans for the Christmas party.”

The massive undertaking that included more than 50 island residents, employees and volunteers, as well as professional firefighters from surrounding communities, paid off.

Flames that once reached 100 feet into the air were contained more than three hours later. Heat had warped porch furniture at a neighboring home, but the fire’s spread was halted, and no one was hurt.

It’s not known what started the blaze in the house being built on Pelican Flight Drive, which parallels the ocean shoreline, but no one was inside the structure. Island officials said the house had a roof and walls but was not yet equipped with the sprinkler system required in all homes.

At first the blaze was thought to be a wildfire. It was spotted around 9:15 p.m. by a resident riding the private ferry to the island. It had already been burning a half-hour and was seen from miles around.

A crew searching the ocean for a missing Mount Pleasant man whose skiff was found capsized earlier in the day also reported the blaze.

Fire Chief Randy Snipes, one of the island’s two full-time firefighters, arrived in a fire engine and saw one home already reduced to rubble. Another, whose owners are part-time residents and were not home, was three-quarters engulfed.

With an ocean breeze blowing the flames toward a neighboring house, the effort quickly shifted to stopping the inferno.

“We had flying embers and fires that were jumping the access road to the beach,” Snipes said. “I think everything worked great after that.”

The trained residents were notified by phone and told to mobilize. Jim Anderson responded, stepping onto his deck to see a glowing sky.

On his golf cart, Anderson scrambled to the house of Bubber and Jan McLhany, which was threatened by the flames. He strung a garden hose through the house and punched it through a window screen. He climbed to the roof and doused falling embers.

“This could have been a lot worse,” he said. “Everybody did something last night. And now, everybody feels the hurt.”

The island’s firefighters were assisted by crews from Isle of Palms, Mount Pleasant, Awendaw, Sullivan’s Island and the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad.

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

At the ferry landing, the dock was buzzing Tuesday night. Besides firefighters, part-time residents who sleep in surrounding communities on weekday nights and the island’s 25 employees arrived to help too.

“Everybody here really cares,” said Janet Kennedy, who maintains homes on the island and in Mount Pleasant. “It’s isolated, but you know you’re never alone when you’re here.”

Wednesday, two sets of 14-foot wooden stilts were all that stood of the destroyed homes.

The smoldering piles were an anomaly for a community that limits polluting influences. The fire site is near part of the island’s 60 miles of undisturbed shoreline.

Nearby, an alligator sunned itself on a deck placed in the middle of a freshwater pond specifically for the reptiles.

Excluding mosquitoes, “our goal is to live with creatures, not fight against them,” resident Judy Fairchild said.

The island maintains its own water system that draws from the same aquifer used in the Charleston area. It undergoes a filtration process that was bypassed Tuesday night for the sake of dispensing a greater amount of water onto the fire.

And it never failed. “We basically have a little self-sufficient city here,” said Artus Moser, president of the property owners’ association. “And it was our own little emergency service that worked just the way we rehearsed it.”

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.