S.C. wildfire destroys dozens of homes

April 23, 2009 7:31:32 AM PDT
Firefighters fear another day of strong winds and low humidity could keep spreading a coastal wildfire that has charred thousands of acres and spread smoke over some of the busiest tourist spots in South Carolina. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

No injuries had been reported in the fire that started Wednesday afternoon west of Myrtle Beach, but officials said gusty winds were making the situation worse.

The fire jumped a state highway near North Myrtle Beach and destroyed about 40 homes early Thursday, said Scott Hawkins, a spokesman for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

In North Myrtle Beach near the North Carolina state line, officials began evacuating about 2,500 people in a four-mile stretch west of Highway 17, city spokesman Nicole Aiello said. Shelters were set up at North Myrtle Beach City Hall and the House of Blues at Barefoot Landing, she said.

The blaze jumped the busy six-lane Coastal Bays Parkway on Wednesday, stopping not far from the Intracoastal Waterway. Firefighters were expecting the waterway to act as a natural firebreak, protecting the larger city of Myrtle Beach.

A gray-white smoke had engulfed restaurant row between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach on Wednesday evening. It looked like a winter fog, with car headlights and neon signs peeking through the haze.

Tourists watched the smoke move over the tree line at the Cane Patch driving range, where one of the holes on the par-3 course was on fire Wednesday night, said cashier John Paulhus.

"We can see the smoke clearly from here," he said. "A lot of them have come in and inquired about it. I think it's more curiosity than anything else."

A cause has not been determined for the fire that began around noon in woods about six miles east of Conway, Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said.

The fire had spread into several Carolina Bays, geographic structures full of organic material that fuel the blaze. Tropical downpours are often needed to extinguish the burning peat, Hawkins said.

"When a bay starts burning, they burn for a long, long time," Hawkins said.

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, the couple recalled the tense moments as the fire started spreading.

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

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