MYRTLE BEACH | Firefighters responded twice to a weekend yard fire that South Carolina officials believe rekindled four days later, igniting a massive wildfire that has destroyed 70 homes and continued to char 31 square miles near Myrtle Beach on Friday.
Officials said homes were still being threatened by the flames but late-day winds had yet to cause it to spread farther. No injuries have been reported but damage estimates rose to $16 million for the three-day blaze and were expected to increase.
Meanwhile, the wife and neighbors of Marc Torchi, the man being fined for setting the yard fire, said county firefighters who responded twice Saturday to the small blaze should take the blame, not him.
"They came back again, put the fire out again and said we were all fine — 'Don't worry about it.' And then four days later, the wildfire broke out," said Torchi's wife, Megan Brogan. She said the family was getting death threats.
"I have to leave my property that, thank God, didn't burn down because they are trying to blame this on my husband," she said. "You'd move your family, too."
Forestry Commission Forest Protection Chief Darryl Jones said it's common for brush fires to appear to be out but then smolder underground and rekindle. But he said blame belongs to the person who set it.
"The fire department didn't start the fire," Jones said. "Someone lit it and somebody let it escape and that's where this all started."
Todd Cartner, a spokesman for Horry County Fire Rescue, initially said his agency did not respond to Torchi's yard fire and later said there are too many potential causes of the massive wildfire for the initial yard blaze to be linked to it.
"We are not associating this fire on Saturday as the same fire on Wednesday, even though it's in the same area. We got no calls from Saturday to Wednesday," Cartner said.
The blaze has scorched 20,000 acres since Wednesday, becoming South Carolina's worst wildfire in at least three decades.
State Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins said Friday afternoon that the fire remained 50 percent contained even though a sea breeze was pushing it inland and away from the main tourist areas. A number of homes are still threatened, although Hawkins didn't know how many.
Crews continue to plow firebreaks into critical areas and hope the winds calm again Friday night so they can make more progress, he said.
Gov. Mark Sanford toured the area and said damage estimates had risen to at least $16 million. He said people shouldn't be looking for someone to blame, but added he would call for a review of the fire once it is out.
The fire started several miles inland and has cut a path four miles wide through tinder-dry scrubland but skipped its way through housing developments, destroying some homes while leaving their neighbors untouched. The blaze started near subdivisions and golf courses that have been carved from forest and swamps over decades. Some sections of the coastal plain have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks.
It got within 1 1/2 miles of Route 17, the main coastal road that links beachfront towns and is lined with fast-food restaurants, beachwear stores and trinket shops.
Torchi, a resident of Conway, a city about 10 miles from where the bulk of the houses have been damaged, is being fined about $760 for starting the weekend yard blaze, officials said.
Neighbors said the blame coming his way was absurd.
"The fire department said everything was OK. Now they're charging him for it," said Burni Uber, 58. "The story I heard is, it's really not his fault. It's sounds like the fire department's. They're the professionals. They said everything's all right."
Neighbor Al Whittaker said firefighters spent several hours putting out the fire Saturday after Torchi's yard debris fire started to spread into the brush by his home.
"They didn't come in with a bulldozer or anything," said Whittaker, 44. "Sunday, Monday and Tuesday goes by. How come nobody comes by and checks? ... How is this thing coming back on him five days later? It's one of the more twisted, insensible things I've heard."
A similar reignition happened in Horry County in February 2008, when a Saturday trash fire rekindled Sunday and eventually spread to 240 acres, causing more than a quarter-million dollars in damage. Fire officials had believed they doused that blaze, but wind gusts helped it reignite and spread.
The Columbia Fire Department sent eight firefighters to aid Horry County, and the Lexington County Fire Service has dispatched five. Columbia also has lent a fire engine and two brush trucks -- pickup trucks with water pumps --> and Lexington has sent two "specialty wildland firefighting apparatuses".