Thousands flee four-mile-wide fire

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. --- Less than a week after Casey Civivanes moved in with his mother, he was left with nothing. Not even his shoes.

The 21-year-old woke early Thursday to flames racing toward the house his mother was renting in a coastal South Carolina golf course development. The two fled, barefoot, as their home and about 70 others were destroyed by a blaze that scorched about 19,600 acres near Myrtle Beach.

"It was raining fire," said Mr. Civivanes, who had moved from Florida. "It was instinct. We grabbed the cat, we grabbed the dog and we got out. The front yard was on fire and I saw the garbage can melting."

South Carolina's biggest wildfire in more than three decades -- a blaze four miles wide -- was being fed by tinder-dry scrubland and forced hundreds of people to flee. About 450 went into shelters, including one set up at the House of Blues honkytonk.

The fire got within 11/2 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.

But Horry County officials said in a statement Thursday night that progress had been made.

A county spokeswoman said state forestry officials considered the fire 40 percent contained; she did not know how that had been done.

The blaze scorched more than 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 flames forced authorities to evacuate 2,500 people. But 30 who had been ordered to leave their homes Thursday night were allowed back a few hours later.

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

Officials said the blaze appeared to die out at Barefoot Resort by midmorning, only to move parallel to the waterway. Authorities worried it could jump the channel, a canal as wide as a football field that separates the city's main drag from the homes of retirees and people who help run the area's golf courses, hotels and other businesses.

A few miles south along the coast, people were unaffected. Golfers kept their tee times and tourists spread out on the beaches. Hotel managers, who offered vouchers to the evacuees, said they could not smell the smoke.

As ash fell, the governor issued a state of emergency, and schools closed early. But North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley managed to promote the area while announcing the number of homes destroyed.

"Certainly come on to the Grand Strand area and enjoy yourself," she said.

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 unclear whether that person had started the massive blaze.

Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said this week's fire was the worst blaze since 47 square miles burned in 1976.

Dense vegetation made the fire hard to fight, Mr. Cartner said. Crews used plows and tractors to cut firebreaks through heavily grown patches called Carolina Bays.

The shallow, egg-shaped depressions pockmark the coast and range in size from a few acres to thousands of acres. They are densely filled with plant life and often have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks.

The Myrtle Beach area is the anchor of the state's $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college students looking for a cheap vacation and families who fill miles of budget hotels in the summer. Thousands of golfers visit each year, and some of the region's courses are among the best in the nation.

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VIDEO: Watch news video from the fires.

MAP: View an interactive map of information from the Sun-Times.

VIDEO: Watch YouTube video of the fires shot from a condo balcony.