Conway man pleads guilty in Horry County wildfires case

But he maintains he isn't responsble for larger blaze that spread in April

MYRTLE BEACH - A man fined for starting a blaze that state officials say rekindled days later into the most destructive wildfire in South Carolina history pleaded guilty Wednesday and will pay $732.

Marc Torchi, 39, of Conway, admitted to not notifying officials of a burn and allowing a fire on his land to spread to a neighbor's property. But he and his attorney, Paul Taylor, said he is not responsible for the larger wildfire that destroyed 76 homes and damaged nearly 100 others on South Carolina's Grand Strand in April.

The fines stem from a debris burn Saturday, April 18, in Torchi's backyard. The larger fire erupted four days later, charring 31 square miles near Myrtle Beach and sending plumes of black smoke over golf courses, restaurants and trinket shops that draw vacationers from around the country.

"I'm pleading guilty to the fire on Saturday, yes," Torchi told Magistrate Margie Livingston.

Torchi, who had requested a trial, says he's been unfairly blamed for the wildfire. Torchi called Horry County firefighters when his fire got out of control, and believed they put it out, as firefighters told him. He declined to comment while leaving the courthouse.

Horry County responded to the fire twice. After making the first call, Torchi told them the fire was out, and they left. Less than an hour later, Torchi called the department again, asking firefighters to return to fight a larger blaze that had spread into dense woodland behind his property. A crew of three responded and thought they put it out. Records show they were on the scene for 42 minutes, according to records, transcripts and tapes of 911 calls reviewed by the AP.

Firefighters didn't return for four days, when a series of frantic 911 calls brought them back to find a home ablaze. State forestry officials were then called.

"My client's concern is his name will be quoted in the media - that he has responsibility for the big fire," Taylor said. "He did not cause the big fire."

The forest protection chief of the state Forestry Commission said the wildfire was traced to Torchi's property, though he was ticketed only for the April 18 debris burn.

"We looked at wildfire spread indicators, burn patterns and vegetation that show the direction the fire has taken and also interviewed some witnesses," Darryl Jones said. "Based on that information we saw on the scene, that led to the origin area in Mr. Torchi's back yard."

The potential for rekindles in Horry County and along parts of the U.S. southern Atlantic coast is high due to peculiar formations called Carolina Bays, which burn ferociously. The elliptical bays, filled with waxy plants dubbed "gasoline bushes" and peat moss that can reach depths of 15 feet, make the region notorious for wildfires.

"Our belief is that because of the soil conditions and the dry conditions, the fire was burning - maybe not putting up smoke - but was burning beneath the surface," Jones said. "On April 22, the wind picked up, and that fire was able to rekindle and lead to the bigger fire."

The Forestry Commission won't issue any more tickets against Torchi, Jones said.

"We've written all the tickets we can," he said.

Three neighbors testified that people in the neighborhood routinely burn outside without calling the Forestry Commission. One of them, Tonya Hogan, lost her home in the larger fire.

"That fire could have spread from any of our yards and done exactly the same thing," she said after the hearing.

But Jones said the commission's toll-free number received 18,082 calls last year from Horry County residents reporting their backyard debris burns, among 335,495 calls received statewide.

Another neighbor, Connie Raymo, said the aftermath of the devastating fire has been difficult for the Torchi family.

"His children have been bombarded. His wife cries every day because whoever let out there that he started the big huge fire, that's not true," she said. "They've been through enough."

According to the Forestry Commission, escaped debris burns are the largest cause of wildfires in South Carolina, accounting for about 45 percent of the wildfires the agency responded to last year.