Wildfire burns on in Grand Strand; winds continue to drive blaze, threaten area

A wildfire moves towards S.C. Highway 31 on Wednesday in Horry County. Photo by Horry County Fire Rescue

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH - The fire was choosy.

Racing through Barefoot Resort at 2 a.m. Thursday morning, it reduced a string of homes to smoldering ruins before skipping to the another house and lighting its next victim.

It devastated many of the homes. On others, siding melted away, or pine straw around shrubs ignited and scorched the house.

In one driveway, the house remained mostly unscathed while a pickup truck sat in a pile of rubble.

Crumbling brick archways and burned-out cars lined Club Course Drive in the North Myrtle Beach Resort Community of 2,000 homes.

In all, 69 homes were destroyed and 29 others suffered severe damage.

The coastal wildfire advanced near one of the busiest tourist stretches in South Carolina, burning dozens of homes and forcing hundreds to flee in the middle of the night. No injuries were reported and officials said the blaze appeared to be heading several miles north of the most densely populated areas.

Gov. Mark Sanford has declared a state of emergency for Horry County, where he said the blaze has consumed 15,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Hatley said there are no plans for Sanford to visit the area today, but that he could arrive later.

Hundreds of Barefoot Landing residents crammed into the House of Blues concert hall this afternoon to watch a video of the North Myrtle Beach fire's aftermath.

A rescue official narrated the video as he drove street by street, surveying the damage. For some residents, the images were too much.

"Oh my God," one woman said, as the screen on stage showed a house demolished. Others gasped or put their hands to their faces when they saw a familiar street or home.

One image showed orange flames still burning in woods behind a home, with the crackling of dry pine straw on the woods floor discernable on the recording.

The news was good for some, and many people were heard calling neighbors to tell them their property was safe. At least 700 hotel rooms were being readied for people displaced by the fire.

Earlier today, police banged on doors to awaken residents as strong winds helped the blaze cut a four-mile-wide swath through forests and scrub toward the Barefoot Landing development, a sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.

"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."

"I've never seen anything this bad," he said.

Firefighters received their first call of a brush fire on Woodlawn Drive off SC Highway 90 shortly after noon on Wednesday.

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

Three emergency shelters have been opened for evacuees.

About 60 people who were evacuated were huddled today at the House of Blues, which is serving as one of area two shelters. Some brought their pets. Those evacuated are watching television news coverage of the wildfires, while others are outside gazing at the billowing white smoke that stretches into the sky.

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

Officials planned to hold a 2 p.m. press conference at the House of Blues shelter and evacuees will be shown a slide show of damaged homes.

A cause of the fire had not been determined. The governor's office said more than 15,000 acres, or about 23 square miles, had been scorched by early Thursday morning.

Flames jumped highways and walls of smoke engulfed tourist attractions as 30 mph gusts blew toward the ocean.

The weather forecast for the next couple of days is not expected to offer much help for those fighting the massive forest fire.

Conditions on Friday will be high (pressure) and dry, much like it Thursday, with no rain in sight, said Meteorologist Stephen Keebler of the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C.

A constant sea breeze along the coast is helping the fire and smoke spread.

"The elements certainly aren't favorable," Keebler said.

Winds are predicted to die down a little Thursday night, as they typically do, and the relative humidity is expected to increase by Saturday and Sunday. The moisture in the air will bring a relief, though not as much as a good soaking rain, Keebler said.

Officials still feared the blaze could jump the waterway.

The Coast Guard shut down the Intracoastal Waterway through much of Myrtle Beach Thursday morning.

Boats are not allowed on the waterway between the U.S. Highway 501 Bridge and the Little River Swing Bridge until further notice.

No boats can enter the area without permission from the Captain of the Port of Charleston. Boats already in the area were told to get out as quickly as possible as a safety precaution.

Besides the wind, 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.

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, subdivisons 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 in a church shelter set up when their subdivision was threatened.

At a shelter set up Wednesday when the fire threatened a subdivision, Jo Hillman, 52, joined her husband, Chuck, and 13 other people at a shelter set up at the Tilly Swamp Baptist Church about midway between Conway and North Myrtle Beach.

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

"First they said 'You've got 15 minutes.' Then they said 'Get out now,'" said Jo Hillman, 52.