- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. | South Carolina’s forest fire chief said Friday that local firefighters thought they had extinguished a yard blaze last weekend that rekindled days later, destroying some 70 homes and charring 31 square miles near Myrtle Beach. Officials said homes were still being threatened by the flames.

Forestry Commission Forest Protection Chief Darryl Jones said he did not know which local agency responded to the yard fire last weekend. He said firefighters doused the blaze with water and thought it had gone out, and that the person who is being fined for burning the debris is to blame.

He said it’s common for brush fires to appear to be extinguished but then smolder underground and rekindle.

“The fire department didn’t start the fire,” Chief Jones said. “Someone lit it and somebody let it escape and that’s where this all started.”

The fire has scorched more than 19,000 acres since Wednesday, becoming South Carolina’s worst wildfire in at least three decades. Some sections of the coastal plain have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks.

The wildfire threatened to intensify after a lull overnight, when calm winds and firebreaks helped contain the blaze that demolished homes and roared through woods just miles from the most-populated stretch of the state’s tourist beaches.

Accelerating winds were expected to feed hot spots and push the flames farther north, away from the undamaged tourist strip, forestry and county officials said.

County officials on Friday morning put early damage estimates at nearly $8.3 million. No injuries have been reported.

Holly Welch, a spokeswoman for the state Forestry Commission, said the blaze was about 50 percent contained early Friday but noted the picture could darken with the slightest change in weather. Winds blowing inland from the Atlantic coast have been feeding the fire and pushing it north.

“Where we think we have things secured, that could all go out the window,” she said.

Horry County Public Safety Director Paul Whitten said he expected hot spots to flame up Friday as winds increase. The National Weather Service said winds could reach speeds close to 15 mph, with some higher gusts.

The fire started several miles inland Wednesday 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.

That’s not unusual because the embers can fly far distances before landing to create blazes of their own, said Mike Bocco, the state Forestry Commission official overseeing the fight.

“A lot of times, the big, raging fire that burns through a forest is not what actually burns the homes down,” he said. “The wind is picking up those embers, blowing them several hundred yards into the lawns, into the pine straw mulch, around the homes, landing in that straw, igniting, and burning the house down.”

The fire started near subdivisions and golf courses that have been carved from forest and swamps over decades.

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