- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) | Wayne Springs and Terry Cook tried to outrun a South Carolina wildfire as it started ripping through forests and homes near the coast. The two state forestry technicians survived by huddling in portable fire shelters, and four days later they were still stomping out the blaze.

“I was nervous going back, but I didn’t want to leave everybody else,” Mr. Springs, 43, said Sunday. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I hope I never do again.”

In all, the wildfire that started Wednesday has burned more than 30 square miles and demolished more than 70 homes. Officials said it remained 85 percent contained Sunday, but they worried that an expected wind shift Monday could threaten other houses. No injuries were reported.

Mr. Springs and Ms. Cook were hours into battling the wildfire near North Myrtle Beach when their tractor got stuck on a firebreak. They were waiting for a tow when the winds changed, pushing a 150-foot wall of flames at them.

“You knew it was coming for you, and that is a bad feeling,” said Mr. Springs, of Lake City. “We were scared, but we stayed calm.”

Each took cover in a fire shelter — which looks like a massive piece of aluminum foil — and hunkered in a small ditch filled with water as the fire roared over them. For several minutes, they were surrounded by the sounds of popping wood and the whoosh of flames.

“It wasn’t long, but it felt like forever,” said Ms. Cook, 43, of Florence County.

They and dozens of others were widening fire barriers and keeping watch on forecasts through the weekend.

Breezes that stayed calm overnight remained light Sunday, but were expected to shift Monday toward the southwest. Through Sunday, the winds have blown mostly to the north, driving flames parallel to the coast. The shift could threaten an inland subdivision about six miles south of where most of the homes were destroyed.

“Sooner or later, these winds are gonna shift, then it’s a whole different ballgame,” forester Mike Ney told about 100 workers being briefed at the start of one 12-hour shift Sunday.

Firefighters continued dousing hot spots and sifting through soil to prevent smoldering embers from blowing away and igniting pockets of greenery.

Firefighters also focused effort on hot spots in the far northeastern corner of the scorched acres, near some swampy areas. More water drops by National Guard Black Hawk helicopters were planned, officials said.

Digging through the soil takes bulldozers several laps because the vegetation is so thick. So-called Carolina Bays that have helped fuel the blaze can be filled with brush and peat moss up to 5 feet deep, Mr. Ney said.

The firefighters’ goal is to create a 60- to 100-foot border around the scorched acres as a safety zone.

Authorities said overnight humidity helped efforts, but smoke and fog delayed workers in the morning.

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