Many people reacting Thursday to the wildfire in North Myrtle Beach found themselves asking one question over and over: How could this have happened here?
An abundance of flammable plants and a flood of new residents are turning parts of Horry County into some of the most vulnerable spots in South Carolina for property damage from forest fires.
Since the early 1990s, large sprawling development projects have spilled inland from Myrtle Beach, across the Intracoastal Waterway and into once sparsely populated thickets of pine trees, oily plants and peat-filled bogs.
Among the development projects that have sprung up are Carolina Forest, Grande Dunes, Pelican Bay and Barefoot Resort. Collectively, they are home to thousands of new residents in Horry County.
The westward reach of resort-style development into Horry County has been fueled by new roads and bridges that made a once-remote area more easily accessible. Both Grande Dunes and Barefoot Resort, for instance, have bridges that span the Intracoastal Waterway to serve home sites and golf courses.
So many houses so close together can hinder firefighting, the S.C. Forestry Commission says.
It’s harder to start backfires to try to stop a blaze when there are many homes nearby.
While new homes and golf courses have mowed down thousands of acres of forests, plenty of forest remains. And that land is full of plants that catch fire easily and smolder for long periods, despite the best efforts of firefighters, say experts with the Forestry Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service.
State forester Gene Kodama said vegetation in Horry and Georgetown counties is similar to chaparral bushes that have ignited and contributed to big Western wildfires. Coastal areas south of Myrtle Beach and Georgetown — Charleston, Edisto, Beaufort, Hilton Head —have fewer thickets of waxy, flammable plants, forest and plant experts said Thursday.
Plants found west of Myrtle Beach include gall berries, swamp cyrillas, wax myrtles and fetter bush plants. Some of these forested areas are so thick a person can’t walk through them, Kodama said.
“When they ignite, there is so much oil in there that they burn very hot,” Kodama said. “They create a very intense flame.”
That means a fire can be harder to extinguish, he said. Even when the flames are doused, fires can smolder for weeks because of peat that underlies the plants.
Ironically, many of these areas are the unique Carolina bays and other types of wetlands. But they dry out during parts of the year, leaving a tinderbox of vegetation that burns easily.
Kodama said western Horry and Georgetown counties traditionally have more wildfires than many other parts of the state.
Ron Osborne, the state’s emergency management director, said the increase in development and forest fires concerns him. Osborne called this week’s fire in Horry County one of the worst in South Carolina in nearly two decades.
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North Myrtle Beach and vicinity of Barefoot Landing
View North Myrtle Beach wildfire in a larger map
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“It’s significant,” Osborne said. “To my knowledge, in the last 15 to 17 years, we’ve not had this many homes impacted from forest fires.”
The fire started west of Myrtle Beach near S.C. 90 and S.C. 22, likely from someone burning refuse, the Forestry Commission says. The blaze had grown large enough Thursday to create its own wind, which quickens its pace across the landscape, Kodama said. It was burning most intensely near Barefoot Resort west of North Myrtle Beach.
Jack Walker, planning director for the city of Myrtle Beach, said wildfires have raged regularly in Horry County for decades, but they’re noticed more these days because so many people have moved across the waterway.
“It’s about impossible now to have a fire (of) over 1,000 acres and not get close to a neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of this development has occurred since the late 1990s.”
Walker remembers one of the state’s worst forest fires in 1976 was notable, but had little impact on people. Other than residents of then-tiny Conway and Loris, there was not much else in western Horry County.
“It went wild, but there was no one out there” to threaten, he said.
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.
Here is the news as of late Thursday in what is believed to be the state’s largest wildfire in more than 30 years:
The blaze burned a 4-mile swath of more than 19,600 acres. That’s nearly 30 square miles — or almost half the size of Fort Jackson. The fire was 40 percent contained by late Thursday.
79 homes were destroyed, and more than 100, damaged.
2,500 people were told to leave their homes in the early morning hours Thursday.
440 people were in three Red Cross shelters. Some hotels offered evacuees free rooms.
The governor declared a state of emergency, bringing in the National Guard and the State Emergency Management Division.
The fire, which started Wednesday, remained concentrated west of the Intracoastal Waterway, staying away from hotels and tourist attractions, which are east of the waterway. The blaze did get within 1½ miles of U.S. 17, the main coastal road.
Dense smoke closed area schools and will keep them closed today.
High winds, densely built homes, peaty soil and long-burning, waxy vegetation made fire fighting difficult.
Other fire developments:
NATIONAL GUARD SENDS WATER
An S.C. Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was being used to drop water on the fire. By 2 p.m. Thursday, some 28,000 gallons of water had been poured onto the blaze, said Guard spokesman Pete Brooks.
Also, Brooks said, Air National Guard units in North Carolina and Georgia each are dispatching two C-130 cargo planes equipped for firefighting.
So far, no ground troops have been called to assist.
COLUMBIA TO HELP
The Columbia Fire Department is sending nine firefighters to North Myrtle Beach.
Four will go in a fire engine, and two each will ride in two brush trucks, pickup trucks that carry a water pump.
They will join 75 firefighters from the Forestry Commission.
3 SHELTERS OPEN; 2 TAKING PETS
The American Red Cross has opened three shelters for the 2,500 evacuees.
One shelter can accommodate people with special needs, and two are taking pets. About 440 people were staying there.
Three Red Cross chapters, including the Columbia chapter, are responding to the fire.
TOURISTS WARNED OF BUSY ROADS
Tourism officials say most of the 60-mile stretch known as the Grand Strand is unharmed, and skies are clear and sunny.
But they also warned motorists to avoid S.C. 23 and S.C. 31. Drivers should take U.S. 17 or U.S. 501, they said.
Officials evacuated the mostly residential Barefoot Resort, where the fire was concentrated. Golf courses are open, including Grande Dunes, where the fire damaged some land but not the golf course, said Kimberly Miles, spokeswoman for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Some hotels are offering free rooms to evacuees. And the chamber is helping displaced families find long-term housing.
For tourist-related updates, visit www.visitmyrtlebeach.com and click on the yellow “Visitor News Update” box. Or call the chamber at 1-888-697-8531.
GOLF COURSES TURN ON SPRINKLERS
The S.C. Forestry Commission urged employees of golf courses near the fire to turn on sprinkler systems in case the blaze continued to spread.
MAN TICKETED FOR BURNING
The S.C. Forestry Commission has issued two tickets that could be connected to the blaze.
Spokesman Scott Hawkins said a man was ticketed Thursday for failing to notify state officials about a planned fire and also for allowing that fire to spread to a neighboring property. The man’s name was not provided. The fire happened April 18, but Hawkins said fires can lie dormant for days.
WINDS COULD SHIFT
Today’s wind speeds will be crucial. A shift in the wind late Thursday was pushing the fire back toward where it started: on the inland side of Horry County’s Intracoastal Waterway, meteorologists said.
That would be good news for the city of North Myrtle Beach, which is on the seaward side of the waterway. It would be bad news for the suburbs on the inland side.
SANFORD TO GO TO MYRTLE BEACH
Gov. Mark Sanford is making plans to go to Myrtle Beach, said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer. The governor, Sawyer said, “is looking for an appropriate time” to arrive at the scene of the fires. It will likely be today, Sawyer said.
GOLFER IN NYC PLANE CRASH IN S.C. FOR FIRE
A man who was aboard the plane that made a splash landing in the Hudson River now finds himself at the site of the North Myrtle Beach fire.
Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn., says he’s not taking the blaze or crash as bad omens. He said the fire is several miles north of him. Kolodjay and some friends arrived Wednesday for a few rounds of free golf offered by a sympathetic resort.
Contributing: State newspaper staffers, The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News and The Associated Press