March 16, 2013

Fire leaves Carolina Forest community in ruins

Shelter moves from Ocean Bay Middle School to Beach Church on George Bishop Parkway in Myrtle Beach.

Two S.C. Forestry Commission investigators have arrived at the scene of the blaze that destroyed dozens of buildings Saturday evening in Carolina Forest. The investigators were trying to find where and how the original grass/woods fire began, according to Scott Hawkins, spokesman for the forestry service.

The Red Cross will move its shelter location from Ocean Bay Middle School at 5 p.m. today to Beach Church, 557 George Bishop Parkway in Myrtle Beach.

Hawkins reminds residents that the Red Flag warning remains in effect statewide, which means “weather conditions, which include wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour in some areas, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures, will contribute to an elevated fire danger level. These factors will support the ignition and spread of wildfire.”

The raging blaze at Windsor Green in Carolina Forest began as a grass fire before it torched dozens of buildings Saturday night, razing them to the ground in a brush fire that quickly grew, fed by the winds and low humidity. The plumes of smoke that billowed into the evening sky could be seen for miles across the Grand Strand.

As firefighters raced to get the blaze under control, residents of the wildfire-prone area braced for the worst. Officials said the blaze was brought under control a few hours later, and no residents were injured or killed, though four first responders were taken to hospitals.

But 26 buildings in Windsor Green were a total loss. Residents of units that remained were expected to be escorted to their homes overnight and Sunday morning to retrieve items such as medication, officials said late Saturday night.

The tally of destruction was grim in its totality.

Everything on Britewater Court was lost.

Everything on Twin Pond Court was lost.

Everything on Pond Shoals was lost, except for one building (No. 4929).

On Crab Pond Court, one and a half buildings burned (No. 4931 burned, along with half of No. 4930)

“It’s just awful,” said county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier.

‘I told him to follow me’

Earlier Saturday evening, residents from the area gathered at the nearby Carolina Forest Elementary School, where some were mourning the loss of their homes and pets. Others had driven to the school hoping to hear from loved ones living in the neighborhood.

The burning buildings could be heard crackling from hundreds of feet away as they were consumed and smoke detectors beeped from inside the condominiums.

Heather Johnson was at the school trying to pick up her mother, Linda Sommer. Sommer lives in the Windsor Green neighborhood and called Johnson crying, saying her house was on fire and at least one dog was inside.

Some golfers picked her up and took her to the clubhouse on the Wizard golf course. It wasn’t clear what happened to her dogs.

Myra Sells lives in Windsor Green with her husband. She saw the smoke and grabbed her purse and her husband’s lock box.

“I told him to follow me,” she said. “He was behind me. I haven’t seen him since.”

After being told that authorities were reporting no injuries, she gave a heavy sigh of relief and her eyes welled up. Sells said that as long her husband, 83-year-old Bill Anderson, is OK, they can replace everything else.

Horry County Fire Rescue responded to the fire about 5 p.m. Saturday, which spokeswoman Leslie Yancey said began as a brush fire, then spread quickly into neighboring condos and single family dwellings. There has been “significant loss,” she said.

At least one firefighter was taken to the hospital. Three police officers were also taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation, said Sgt. Robert Kegler, but all were treated and released early Sunday morning.

Firefighters continued battling the blaze into the late evening, but Yancey said it had been “contained to one area.” By 10:30 p.m., officials were confident that the blaze was under control, with some hot spots simmering, but activity winding down.

The cause remains under investigation, but Eddie Olivera, who lives in the next neighborhood, said it appeared to start near the power lines that separate Windsor Green from Ashley Park.

The fire came the same day the S.C. Forestry Commission issued a statewide red flag fire weather alert. By 7:15 p.m. the commission had responded to 64 fires across the state.

A statement issued by the commission Saturday said weather conditions, including wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour in some areas, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures, were expected to contribute to an elevated fire danger level. The alert will remain in effect until it’s lifted by the commission.

After Saturday night’s fire, Horry County Fire Chief Fred Crosby issued a burn ban for all unincorporated areas of Horry County, Yancey said, meaning no open burning is allowed until further notice.

Help for victims

Yancey urged all residents who left their homes to check in at the Red Cross shelter, which will move from Ocean Bay Middle School to Beach Church at 5 p.m. Sunday, even if they don’t require shelter. That’s so emergency personnel can ensure that all residents are accounted for. Windsor Green residents who stayed elsewhere Saturday night were asked to call the school at 843-997-6970 to check in. The Red Cross also set up a hotline for any people affected by the fire: 843-477-0020.

Coastal Carolina University’s housing department was urging any students affected by the fire to contact them or the school’s Public Safety Department for assistance.

By Saturday night, area businesses had already begun clamoring to help.

The Island Bar and Grill in Surfside Beach was asking for clothing, toiletries and other items to help the families who’s homes were consumed.

Ron Jon’s on Waccamaw Boulevard is holding a fundraiser Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. offering a ziti dinner costing $5 a plate for children and $7 a plate for adults. According to the restaurant’s Facebook page they plan to have a 50/50 drawing and a silent auction. Items can be dropped off starting at 11 a.m. for anyone who cannot attend the evening fundraiser.

And the Quality Inn near Coastal Carolina University offered discounted rates and waived its pet fee for any fire victims with animals.

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