CONWAY, S.C. Marc Torchi and his family have been getting death threats since South Carolina officials blamed him for the wildfire that has destroyed more than 70 homes and scorched 31 square miles, causing an estimated $16 million in damage.
But Torchi is flabbergasted county firefighters aren't taking responsibility after they came to his Conway home not once but twice to put out a small yard fire that apparently rekindled four days later. Torchi says the accusations have damaged his reputation and endangered his children. The 39-year-old landscaper said in an interview he doesn't see how he can be faulted for the fire re-igniting Wednesday and beginning a raging trek along the coast.
Officials said homes were still threatened even though the wildfire was 80 percent contained Friday night.
Crews continued to plow firebreaks into critical areas and burn underbrush and trees ahead of the blaze to rob it of fuel. Winds were expected to pick up after sunrise Saturday.
"If just one ember gets out in front of a firebreak, this thing could flare back up quickly," state Forestry Commission spokeswoman Holly Welch said.
No injuries have been reported.
Along rural Woodlawn Drive, the home Torchi shares with his wife and two young daughters is untouched by the fire, but a neighboring field is covered with gray and black ash that crunches underfoot.
Less than 100 yards away, small orange flames erupt from residue and ash still smoldering at the base of a pine tree.
It's debris from these very pine trees that Torchi said he raked together and burned in his backyard on April 18, as he's done once a week for the seven years since he and his wife, Megan Brogan, moved here from Staten Island, N.Y.
This time, Torchi says, windy conditions caused the fire to grow beyond his control. So he called authorities.
"We already had it pretty much under control" by the time firefighters arrived 30 minutes later, said Torchi. He and a neighbor trained garden hoses on the fire while they waited. "They said, 'It looks like everything's OK.'"
Officials returned later that evening to check on the fire, and Torchi said he saw no sign of it. He worked in the yard all day Sunday and said he thought everything had returned to normal.
"I'm not going to leave my family, I'm not going to go to bed Sunday night, or Saturday night, knowing that something is still burning," Torchi said. "Who's going to go to sleep Saturday night knowing there is a fire?"
No criminal charges have been filed, but Torchi is being fined about $760 for starting the weekend yard fire.
Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner initially said his agency did not respond to Torchi's yard fire and later said there are too many potential causes for the initial blaze to be linked to the wildfire.
"We are not associating this fire on Saturday as the same fire on Wednesday, even though it's in the same area. We got no calls from Saturday to Wednesday," Cartner said.
Saying it's not uncommon for brush fires to appear to be out but then smolder underground and rekindle, Forestry Commission Forest Protection Chief Darryl Jones said the real blame for the blaze belongs to the person who set it.
"The fire department didn't start the fire," Jones said. "Someone lit it and somebody let it escape and that's where this all started." Torchi said he's not buying that, and neighbors said blaming him was absurd.
"Sunday, Monday and Tuesday goes by," said Al Whittaker, 44. "How come nobody comes by and checks? ... How is this thing coming back on him five days later? It's one of the more twisted, insensible things I've heard."
For Torchi, the warm, sunny climate where he brought his wife to raise their family now seems a hostile place despite the South Carolina tourism motto, "Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places."
He and Brogan say they fear for their young daughters, who likely attend school with children whose families have lost everything in the fire. "I wish I had never come," he said. "'Beautiful places, smiling faces,' isn't that what gets you here?"