Investigation into Windsor Green blaze continues, authorities also probing 2 nearby fires

troot@thesunnews.com, vgrooms@thesunnews.com, mprabhu@thesunnews.comMarch 18, 2013 

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    Anyone with information about the Windsor Green fire is asked to call the state’s arson tip like at 800-92-ARSON.

CAROLINA FOREST Natural causes have been ruled out in the fire that reduced 26 condominium units to ash Saturday, authorities said Monday. But they are still seeking the answer to what sparked the blaze.

Darryl Jones, director of forest protection with the S.C Forestry Commission, said investigators were able to rule out any natural causes of the fire, such as lightening, and said it was not caused by downed power lines, a campfire or a debris burn that got out of control.

“That leaves us with all of the other potential causes, which are all human,” he said. “It could have been a vehicle or piece of equipment, it could have been a discarded cigarette or someone with matches. It could have been anything.”

“Unless we get a tip or some other report of witnesses, we know it’s human cause but that may be as far as we’re able to determine at this point,” Jones said. Anyone with information can call the state’s arson tip like at 800-92-ARSON.

Jones said the area of origin is narrowed down to a 15-foot-by-15-foot area at the rear of the development about 50 to 60 feet away from a dirt road. He said that as first responders worked to get the fire under control, any evidence in the area of origin was destroyed.

Meanwhile, police and fire officials also are investigating two brush fires that occurred Sunday in the Avalon subdivision in Carolina Forest, police Sgt. Robert Kegler said Monday morning.

“There is nothing indicating any links to Windsor Green [fire] at this time,” but officials are investigating, Kegler said.

Firefighters were called at 9:20 p.m. Sunday to a wooded area behind the basketball courts in Avalon after a security officer spotted the fire, Kegler said. Crews were called again at 11 p.m. for a brush fire in an area behind the swimming pool.

Horry County police confirmed Monday that there were no human fatalities in the fire that destroyed 110 condominiums in 26 buildings and left about 190 people homeless in the Windsor Green development over the weekend.

“We now have all of the residents accounted for from every single one of the units that were occupied,” said Horry County police Chief Saundra Rhodes. “And we actually have the information on the units that were unoccupied now, which was a little difficult for us to get a hold to.”

Horry County fire Chief Fred Crosby said crews found a few pets roaming the development as they searched through the rubble left behind by the fire and were able to reunite them with their owners.

“There were a lot of the pets that were lost in this fire,” Crosby said. “Any of the remains we recovered … and we have those with the police department in case there’s an opportunity to at least reunite the remains with the people.”

‘Thank a first responder’

Crosby said that wind was the major issue causing the fire to spread so quickly, combined with a number of other factors.

“This community had the pine straw, which is very flammable, the buildings were very close together, [they have] vinyl siding,” he said. “A lot of this fire moved so quick because of the intense heat. … The area that we saved, if you look at the siding on some of those buildings, the heat was so much that it melted. We had a combination of wind, direct flame and, because of the way the buildings are constructed nowadays, they burn hot and fast, so they give off a lot of radiant heat.”

Gov. Nikki Haley and other local politicians toured Windsor Green Monday afternoon, which Haley described as devastating. All though 26 buildings were lost, Haley said it could have been much worse.

“I am telling you, thank a first responder today because how they stopped that wall of fire is nothing short of heroic,” she said. “We can’t stop the winds, we can’t stop the fact that this fire started. The fact that we stopped anybody from getting hurt, that people were actually pulling people out of homes, I mean, you can’t put a price on that.”

Rhodes said that she hopes crews are able to get the fire damage cleaned up in the next few days to allow the residents who still have their homes back into the development.

Lisa Bourcier, Horry County spokeswoman, said searchers are clearing about eight buildings each day and are tagging personal items found in the rubble to be returned to their owners at a later date.

It was unclear how many people were impacted by the fire or the property’s assessed value, Bourcier said and noted that information could be released at a later date.

There were two phases for the Windsor Green complex, Bourcier said. Phase one, which is the majority of the property, was constructed in 1997, while phase two was built in 2005.

During the first phase, building codes did not require sprinkler systems to be installed in the buildings, but in the second phase there were sprinklers inside the buildings, Bourcier said. It was unclear how many buildings in each phase were impacted by the fire.

“From what I’m told [sprinklers] wouldn’t have made a difference because of the heat and winds,” Bourcier said.

Building code enforcement did fire inspections of the buildings when they were constructed and officers made sure there were fire extinguishers in the hallways or common areas of the buildings, the stairwells were clear and exit signs were displayed, she said.

Intensity, blowing embers factors in fire speed

The fire at Windsor Green began at around 5 p.m. Saturday, destroying 26 buildings containing 110 condominium units. It took firefighters a few hours to get the fire under control, but crews still worked Monday to make sure there were no hot spots left, causing potential for another fire to flare up, Crosby said.

The fire moved quickly and Steve Quarles, a wildfire expert and senior scientist working with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, said the intensity of the blaze along with blowing embers could cause the fire to spread quickly in a condo community where buildings are close to each other.

“These embers, they can be blown ahead to start other fires,” Quarles said Monday by telephone from a conference in Reno. “If that radiant exposure is long enough and high enough it breaks glass in a house, once that glass is broken then embers can enter into the house.”

Those embers can also enter in a structure through attic gable openings and catch that space on fire, Quarles said. Debris such as pine straw on a roof also can easily ignite causing a fire.

“Once one building ignites, the flames from one building can ignite another building and once that building is ignited it will generate its own embers,” Quarles said. “Once one ignites with windy conditions and close building spacing, it’s not unreasonable to assume that one building could have facilitated the ignition of another building and so on.”

Also on Monday, state forestry officials lifted statewide red flag alert Monday, but a burning ban remains in effect in Horry County, as officials continue to investigate the cause of a blaze that destroyed 26 condo buildings in the Carolina Forest area, authorities said.

Because of some rain, decreased winds, cooler temperatures and higher relative humidity values, fire weather conditions improved so officials decided to lift the alert, said Scott Hawkins with the S.C. Forestry Commission. Residents should continue to check with their local authorities before conducting any outdoor burning and log the burn with the state Forestry Commission.

Counseling provided at schools

Teal Harding, Horry County Schools spokeswoman, said 30 students and four staff persons from the school district lost their homes. About 70 students lived in the Windsor Green development, according to the district’s computer records, said Harding, who earlier Monday confirmed that 18 of those students attend Carolina Forest Elementary School, with nine of them losing their homes.

In addition to the elementary school, Carolina Forest High School and Ocean Bay Middle School were affected, and Harding said crisis counseling is being arranged for those schools, in addition to other services.

“We encourage parents to establish communication with their child’s school so we can begin the process to provide the services we can provide and to get the students back in a familiar setting and back in a routine to help in the recovery process,” Harding said.

The district will provide transportation for students who were displaced, whether they are in a shelter, staying with friends or living in a different attendance area, Harding said, and there are some federal funds available that may be used by students to replace school supplies, basic hygiene needs and a small allotment for clothes.

The district is working with Conway National Bank to collect contributions. Harding said anyone willing to donate can do so at any of the bank’s locations, with checks made payable to Horry County Disaster Relief Fund-Carolina Forest. She said donations will go to a general fund, or they will be applied specifically to the needs of Horry County Schools students and staff members if indicated by the donor.

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