S.C. Wildland Fire Destroys 26 Apartment Buildings

March 19, 2013
Hundreds of residents were displaced when a wildland fire of unknown cause leveled the condominium development at Waterford Plantation.

March 18--The fire that quickly consumed 26 buildings in the Windsor Green development at Waterford Plantation began in a wooded area at powerlines near the complex, investigators had determined by Sunday evening.

But they don't know yet what started the blaze that displaced hundreds of residents and leveled the condominium development's multi-family buildings.

"While we can't rule out a debris burn, we're not thinking it was a debris burn because if it was a debris burn, the cause it would be fairly obvious," said Scott Hawkins, spokesman with the S.C. Forestry Commission. "We know where it started, we just don't know what started."

Weather conditions helped fuel the blaze that was brought under control by dozens of firefighters from Horry County and neighboring departments. Search and rescue crews with cadaver dogs combed through the building remains Sunday, but it was unclear how many people were unaccounted for from the units. Many of the units are owned by out-of-towners who use them as vacation homes, or rent them to other tenants.

Sunday evening, officials said the blaze had caused no serious injuries. Four first-responders were treated at area hospitals for smoke inhalation.

Horry County officials set up a check-in area Sunday for residents whose homes were destroyed, and designated another area for those who needed access to retrieve personal items from units that were still standing.

A Red Cross shelter at Ocean Bay Middle School that had housed victims Saturday night moved at 3 p.m. Sunday to Beach Church at 557 George Bishop Parkway. Dozens of local businesses, churches and other organizations began coming forward to help with donations and other services for those residents who lost their belongings.

All buildings in the complex along Britewater Court and Twin Pond Court were destroyed. All but building No. 4929 on Pond Shoals was destroyed, while building No. 4931 and half of building No. 4930 on Crab Pond Court were damaged.

Horry County's fire chief issued a burn ban for all unincorporated areas of Horry County late Saturday and no open burning is allowed until further notice, according to officials.

A statewide Red Flag alert remained in effect Sunday and will likely stay in effect until the state has received some rain, Hawkins said.

A statewide alert "happens once or twice a year when weather conditions and humidity dovetail into a perfect conditions for a wildfire and spread," Hawkins said Sunday. "Statistically, we know that wildfires peak on a Saturday afternoon."

The red flag alert was issued Friday because forestry officials saw that weather conditions with low humidity, winds gusting up to 30 mph, warmer temperatures and the expectation that more people would be conducting outdoor activities, Hawkins said.

The first call about the Windsor Green fire came in about 5 p.m. Saturday, officials said.

According to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., the relative humidity dropped from 32 percent at 2:55 p.m. to 26 percent at 4:55 p.m. Saturday and the air temperature was 79 degrees.

"We factor in our agencies allocation of equipment and people and we factor in what we know human activity and behavior, which by in large it involves people outdoor doing things, Hawkins said. "Even if we lift this red flag Monday or Tuesday, we're still going to tell people to think before they burn or postpone until right after a rainfall."

The low relative humidity dries out vegetation in the area, which creates hazardous fire conditions, Hawkins said.

"With dry grass, a fire will rush over that," Hawkins said. "Relative humidity, you can't see it or feel it and you don't know what it's done to the environment around you. If the grass around your burn pile is dry that fire can spread quickly."

Residents should check with the state Forestry Commission and their local government before conducting any outdoor burning, Hawkins said. Outdoor burning information can be found at www.trees.sc.gov.

Residents can also call 1-800-986-5404 in Horry County or 1-800-986-5256 in Georgetown County to find out local burning conditions and to log that they plan to conduct outdoor burning with the Forestry Commission.

But Hawkins said, outdoor burning of natural vegetation is legal in most unincorporated areas of the state. Local municipalities typically ban such burning and no household trash is allowed to be burned due to regulations by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"The first thing they need to do is make sure it is legal to burn, then check fire weather conditions on the Forestry Commission page," Hawkins said. "You can never be too careful."

Residents living where it is legal to burn outdoors, should also prepare with large amounts of water available and manpower to help in case the blaze gets too large.

"It's manpower, it's the proper weather conditions, plenty of apparatus and water to put it out and it's awareness of the fire conditions," Hawkins said.

For Bob Gagne, the Carolina Forest Civic Association safety chairman, the fire was too close to his Spring Lake community home. Gagne hopes more of the 32 communities in the Carolina Forest area will join the three communities of Avalon, The Farm and Walkers Woods in becoming certified as being Firewise communities through the Forestry Commission.

According to the commission's website, 14 communities in the state, including Briarcliffe Acres in Horry County and Prince George in Georgetown County are certified Firewise communities. To be certified, communities must form a Firewise committee and collect $2 a year from each residence to be in the organization. After that, it would have to commit to writing an annual report to Firewise.

"Education of fire safety is my big concern. We'll be getting more interest within the next couple weeks," Gagne said. "I'll try to do my best. We'll keep at it until we get everyone involved. It's just tragedy now."

Firewise communities look at building materials and landscaping as well to prevent wildfires, Hawkins said.

In the April 2009 wildfire that burned more than 19,000 acres, destroyed 76 houses, damaged 97 additional homes and caused more than $25 million in damage, it originated April 22 on S.C. 90 and later jumped to the Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach, to S.C. 22, S.C. 31 and Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach.

Officials had pointed to pine straw being around homes in the Barefoot community that helped fuel the blaze along with brush being too close to home.

Hawkins said it is best to have at least 30 feet of space between a home or community and wooded areas or brush. It is also better to use lava rocks, stones or other items that don't ignite in landscaping next to a house instead of pine straw.

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.

Copyright 2013 - The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

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