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SC coast warily awaits next devastating wildfire

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Pat Henry will long remember that April night when the western horizon glowed an eerie red, smoking embers cascaded from the sky, and she and her husband escaped their home driving through their subdivision of flaming palmettos and burning roofs.

"It was like driving through hell, literally," she said. "It was very, very scary."

Three years after the most devastating wildfire in South Carolina history, the homes in Henry's Barefoot Landing neighborhood west of the Intracoastal Waterway have been rebuilt and stand behind manicured lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs.

But not far away, acres of charred trees and fallen logs bear witness to the fire that raced across more than 19,000 acres, destroying 76 homes and damaging about 100 more. The fire also burned areas of the undeveloped Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

Forestry officials say it's not a matter of if such a fire will happen again, but simply a matter of when.

"In the last 50 years, every few years there has been a fairly good-sized fire in this area," said Mike Bozzo of the South Carolina Forestry Commission, who was the incident commander for the 2009 blaze, sometimes called the Highway 31 fire.

South Carolina 31, also known as the Carolina Bays Parkway, is an expressway that parallels the coast on the inland side of the waterway.

Not a single home was lost in 1976 when 30,000 acres burned in the area, Bozzo said, standing near a grove of trees blackened by the 2009 fire.

But in the past 30 years, development has pushed west of the waterway into an area of what are called Carolina Bays that make fighting fires a challenge.

The bays are elliptical depressions ranging in size from a few to thousands of acres. They are densely filled with plants such as bay bushes and myrtles that have waxy leaves with flammable oils. They also have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for weeks.

The warm and dry winter and spring this year prevented crews from getting into the area of the Highway 31 fire to do prescribed burns to burn off the smaller plants that can fuel a blaze. Prescribed burns will now have to wait until next winter. The burns must be done in cooler weather so the heat doesn't get too hot for pines and other larger trees.

Doug Mills of the state Forestry Commission told the state's Drought Response Committee on Wednesday that because of the warm spring, vegetation greened up earlier and there weren't as many wildfires during the late winter and spring fire season. But he said continued dry conditions could mean an unusual summer wildfire season, especially east of Interstate 95.

At Barefoot Landing, Henry, whose house survived the flames, said there have been changes after the ordeal three years ago. Homes were rebuilt with brick instead of vinyl, which can easily catch fire.

Residents also are generally using shredded hardwood or cedar mulch or decorative stones in their garden beds instead of flammable pine straw. When embers from the fire reached pine straw beds the night of the fire, the flames quickly leaped from bed to bed in the subdivision.

Henry, as it turns out, had always used decorative white stone around her garden beds since she and her husband, David, arrived from Connecticut almost a decade ago. "We did not know we were in a fire zone. We had no idea that in the South you had to be cautious and watchful for fires," she said.

With all the new development, it's harder than it used to be to manage woodlands to prevent wildfires with prescribed burns, said the commission's Rocky Tucker.

"The increase in urban sprawl and the reluctance of homeowners to have situations with smoke in their communities does make it a little more of a challenge," he said.

Bozzo said it's also difficult do burns near the parkway because crews have to make sure the smoke is not blowing toward traffic. The parkway was temporarily closed while firefighters battled the 2009 blaze.

Just as people on the coast get complacent about hurricanes if one has not hit in a while, so too do they get complacent about fires, Tucker said.

"That's attributed to both new folks moving in who weren't there and aren't familiar with it when it happened in the past. Also, memories are short and people just forget," he added.

Despite the fire, Henry never thought of moving away and most of her neighbors, even those who lost their homes, returned.

Does she worry about fires now?

"On and off," she said. "It's not something I obsess about daily. It's just that when I see high winds or I see those flickers of flame you sometimes see in the woods."