- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) | South Carolina’s biggest wildfire in more than three decades - a blaze four miles wide - destroyed dozens of homes Thursday and threatened some of the area’s world-famous golf courses at the height of the spring tourist season.

The flames, fed by tinder-dry scrubland, forced hundreds of people to flee, and some took shelter in the House of Blues honkytonk.

The fire got within 1 1/2 miles of Route 17, the main coastal road that links beachfront towns and is lined with fast-food restaurants, beachwear stores and trinket shops. By Thursday evening, the flames were about 3 miles west of the highway.

The blaze scorched about 24 square miles over the past two days and then veered north, heading away from the high-rise hotels that line Myrtle Beach. There were no reports of injuries, and authorities said they had not determined what sparked the flames.

Fueled by dry underbrush and highly combustible swamp peat, the blaze leveled about 70 homes and damaged 100 others early Thursday as the fire jumped a four-lane highway. The flames also forced authorities to evacuate 2,500 people. Some returned home Thursday evening while, at the same time, a couple of miles north, police told people to leave 30 other homes. Officials said they were worried shifting winds overnight could push the flames farther inland toward other neighborhoods.

Much of the damage was concentrated Thursday at Barefoot Landing, a sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.

“The house is completely gone,” said Rachel Plaga, a 38-year-old nurse, who later began sobbing. “It was like Armageddon back there. There was nothing. Everything was gone. My whole life. My kid’s whole life. It was horrific.”

The fire started several miles inland Wednesday, near subdivisions and golf courses that have been carved from forest and swamps over decades. On Thursday, state forestry officials said they issued two citations to someone for starting a fire that got out of control, but it was not clear whether that person had started the massive blaze.

The area remains prone to wildfires that spring up in the woods and scrub. Horry County Fire and Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said this week’s fire was the worst blaze since 47 square miles burned in 1976.

Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area account for most of the state’s $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college students looking for a cheap spring break destination and families who fill miles of budget hotels in the summer.

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