COLUMBIA — Some people barely had time to escape while there appeared to be little firefighters could do to save more than 100 homes destroyed by a weekend fire that burned two dozen condominium buildings near Myrtle Beach, authorities said Monday.
The blaze, which started outdoors as a wildfire, spread quickly Saturday afternoon through condos in the Windsor Green golf course neighborhood. Two cul-de-sacs each had eight two-story condominium units. All that remained of the buildings was ankle-high rubble.
Investigators have determined the fire was caused by someone. The area where it ignited was only about 50 feet from the nearest home. The site was trampled over by emergency responders, so authorities likely will never know if the fire was started by accident, like a discarded cigarette, or set intentionally, said Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the state Forestry Commission.
“Unless we get a tip or some other report by a witness — we know it was human causes, but we may not know anything else,” Jones said.
The homes burned in minutes as winds gusted up to 30 mph. Horry County police officers and other emergency responders kicked in doors and dragged residents out as flames burned in the rafters. Three officers were treated for smoke inhalation, along with a firefighter who suffered minor injuries.
“There were a lot of heroes involved in this,” Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster said.
Authorities had accounted for all 189 residents in the destroyed homes Monday.
Gov. Nikki Haley walked around the complex Monday and said it was a miracle no one died. She also was amazed firefighters were able to save dozens of other buildings in the tightly packed complex.
“How they stopped that wall of fire is nothing short of heroic,” Haley said.
Residents said there was almost no time to run away with anything more than their lives. Lee Krone told WMBF-TV that he and his wife lost 15 years of memories almost in an instant and were stunned at what they saw as they fled from their burning home.
“The whole building was in flames,” Krone said. “The only thing you could see were the rafters. It was burning that fast.”
Dozens of pets died in the fire, and as crews sifted through the debris, they set the animals’ remains aside with police and will give them to their owners, if requested, Horry County Fire Chief Fred Crosby said.
The fire began near power lines about 50 feet from the nearest building in the complex, State Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins said.
The dry, windy weather, combined with the landscaping of the area made it easy to spread. Hawkins said the Forestry Commission recommends at least 30 feet of material that won’t burn in front of buildings. Many of the condos had grass and pine straw in their yards.
“We had a combination of wind and direct flame and the way the buildings are constructed these days, they burn hot and fast,” Crosby said.
The state Forestry Commission issued a red flag fire alert over the weekend. A total of 131 fires were reported as warm, windy weather combined with low humidity to give the wildfire season an earlier start than usual in South Carolina.