A coastal wildfire spread early Thursday toward 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.
Police banged on doors to awaken residents as strong winds pushed the blaze through a wooded swath 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.”
Officials hoped the waterway would act as a natural firebreak to protect more populated areas closer to the beach. State fire officials said as many as 40 homes had been damaged or destroyed. North Myrtle Beach spokeswoman Nicole Aiello said only that 40 homes were damaged and the extent of that would not be known until later in the day.
About 2,500 people in a four-mile stretch on the western side of the waterway were told to leave their homes overnight, Aiello said. Shelters were set up at North Myrtle Beach City Hall and the House of Blues, where about 50 people watched a television over the bar looking for news updates. Outside, a white haze settled and the acrid smell of smoke was pervasive.
“What we have on is what we got away with,” said Sherlene Pinnix, 63.
A cause of the fire, which started a day earlier in a wooded area west of the beach, had not been determined. Officials said more than 8,000 acres had been scorched by early Thursday morning, with the flames jumping highways and sending walls of smoke over tourist attractions as 30 mph gusts pushed it toward the ocean. Winds were expected to be weaker Thursday.
Adding to the problem were heavily vegetated patches called Carolina Bays that caught fire and fueled the blaze. 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 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 remain prone to wildfires that spring up in the woods and scrub. Some 30,000 acres 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.
Associated Press Writers Jeffrey Collins and Jack Jones in Columbia contributed to this report.
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