South Carolina Residents Question Timing of Wildfire Evacuation

June 9, 2009

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina residents who lost everything in an April wildfire are asking why officials gave them just minutes to evacuate when flames had been raging for most of the previous day.

The Sun News of Myrtle Beach reports that police videos, 911 calls and emergency radio traffic show a chaotic attempt to get people out of Barefoot Resort, one of the city’s largest residential developments.

Homes were burning and people didn’t know what to do. No one was hurt or killed, but residents say the failure to react could have cost lives.

The fire destroyed 76 homes and damaged 78 others at a total estimated cost of $19 million.

“Every photograph, every piece of antique furniture, all my kids’ baby books, every ornament we’ve collected since my children were born, it’s all gone,” said resident Sherry Martin. “Everything that defined who I was before the fire, it’s all gone.”

She remembers waking up in the middle of the night April 23 because her husband heard something hitting the roof. They looked outside and “it was literally raining fire,” she said.

“The heat was so intense you couldn’t blink your eyes … you couldn’t speak because your lips were plastered to your teeth.”

Police car videos from that night show North Myrtle Beach officials feared the wildfire would hit Barefoot Resort more than 30 minutes before the first house caught fire. They had been monitoring the fire for hours before that.

But they didn’t call for an evacuation until it was too late to save the homes. They say the fire flared too quickly and was unpredictable.

City officials also say Horry County Fire Rescue officials assured them earlier that night the fire was contained. The county’s fire chief denies that assertion.

The wildfire started when a trash fire set four days before rekindled.

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