Originally created 07/23/98

Brush fires scorch Aiken Co.



Fires destroyed an estimated 150 acres of woods and brush in Aiken County Wednesday, as firefighters battled not only the running blaze but triple-digit heat under a searing sun.

Officials believe two blazes broke out in a heavily wooded area between Belvedere-Clearwater and Blanchard roads about 2:30 p.m., and the fire continued to spread throughout the afternoon. A Forestry official estimated about 150 acres burned.

By about 6:30 p.m., the fires were contained, but officials expect them to burn for a few more days before smoldering out.

Four firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, but no one else was injured. Four homes in the area were evacuated because of falling ash. Residents were allowed to return to their homes by 7:30 p.m.

Flames and smoke filled the sky over the North Augusta area as firefighters and volunteers exhausted themselves digging trenches, or fire breaks, around the blaze to contain it. But the flames jumped the breaks a few times, sending firefighters scrambling to nearby neighborhoods along Blanchard Road.

"It's possible that two fires started at about the same time," said Belvedere Fire Lt. Marcus Padgett.

He wouldn't speculate on a cause.

"We just don't know at this time what started it."

The brush fires come nearly three weeks to the day that flames scorched almost 90 acres in south Richmond County.

Although Wednesday's fires burned about twice as much land as in Augusta, the fire was more easily contained in Aiken County because there weren't many near by structures, giving officials more time to prepare, said Bath Assistant Fire Chief Sean Johnson, also a Richmond County firefighter. In Richmond County, several homes and businesses were damaged along with the brush.

During Wednesday's fires, at least 12 law-enforcement agencies sent several hundred firefighters and volunteers to a central command area on Belvedere-Clearwater Road, where firefighters geared up and trekked up hills on all-terrain vehicles to reach the flames burning in the woods.

Winds at 10 mph likely contributed to the quick spread of the fire and the soaring mercury made it even harder to battle.

Merriwether Firefighter Joe Willis slumped in a folding chair in the shade underneath a makeshift tent after spending about an hour battling the blaze. Aiken County EMS set up a misting system in the tent, spraying firefighters with a light mist to help them cool down when they returned from a rotation.

"There's a lot of fire and smoke up there," Fireman Willis said, as he draped a water-soaked towel over his neck. "We knocked some of it down -- we were at least able to slow it down. It was about 2-300 feet from mobile homes we're trying to keep it from."

Volunteers kept plenty of ice water and Gatorade on hand and pumped the fluids into the sweaty firefighters to prevent dehydration, a danger considering a temperature of 95 degrees with a heat index of 103. Melanie Boland, a medical officer with the Belvedere Fire Department, was organizing the rotations and checking vital signs as firefighters came off the hill.

Several grocery stores and convenience stores in the area donated snacks and beverages to keep the supply stocked. Charter Oil Co. donated fuel for fire trucks running out of gas, officials said.

The two fires are believed to have started on opposite sides of the giant hill and the blazes traveled uphill until they met.

"Fire spreads faster going up hill, and now it's moving slower downhill," said Chief Johnson. "Fire trucks are sitting in the back yards of (homes along Blanchard Road) to be ready if it reaches those homes."

The Savannah River Site brought in foaming trucks to help the water saturate the brush better while the Forestry Unit pointed out hot spots via helicopter.

Residents along Blanchard Road gathered outside their homes and watched the billowing smoke as some evacuees found refuge elsewhere.

Doris Allen was forced from her home and was seeking shelter down the street with her daughter.

"They came and told us we needed to leave and the first thing I grabbed were my grandchildren, I don't care about the house," she said.

But her daughter, Pat Hearn, said her mom's house had too much sentimental value to see it go up in smoke.

"My daddy built that house, it has memories," Mrs. Hearn said. "You never know what people go through until you go through it yourself.

"But the firefighters have done an unbelievable job."

Staff writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this article