It started as a simple debris burn that escaped a Conway area yard.
But within 24 hours, the Highway 31 fire of April 22, 2009 singed a path from S.C. 90 all the way into the Barefoot community of North Myrtle Beach.
When the flames were finally extinguished, more than 19,000 acres had been scorched. Seventy-six homes in the Barefoot community were damaged or destroyed.
To this day the Highway 31 fire rivals the Windsor Green fire in terms of sheer destructiveness.
Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the S.C. Forestry Commission, said the Highway 31 fire was so intense that the inferno literally created its own weather.
“It got to a certain point where a few miles away at the airport, they were showing zero to 5 mph winds,” Jones said. “But at the fire, when it was burning homes, our guys were reporting 45 to 60 mph winds.”
Tuesday marked the five-year anniversary of the blaze that caught residents and first responders off guard.
The Highway 31 fire comes on the heels of another somber anniversary – the one-year anniversary of the Windsor Green fire – which obliterated 26 condominium buildings in the Carolina Forest subdivision on March 16, 2013.
While both fires were equally as destructive, the Highway 31 fire was much more massive, covering considerably more territory than the 27-acre Windsor Green fire.
Defying all expectations, the Highway 31 fire hopped S.C. 31 and threatened Grande Dunes before turning north overnight and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of Barefoot residents.
“No one, including skilled firefighters, thought the fire would jump [S.C.] 31 because of the broad space there,” said Bo Ives, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association. “There’s more than 30 feet of easement between the roadways and shoulders. It jumped 120 feet.”
Wildfire safety is a cornerstone of the Civic Association’s platform.
For years, the group has been promoting Firewise certification and fire adaptive communities as ways residents can safeguard their homes against wildfire threats.
Since May 1, 2009, outdoor burning has been responsible for 119 of 292 fires responded to by the S.C. Forestry Commission, according to agency figures.
Incendiary devices were responsible for 85 fires while children and “miscellaneous causes” were each responsible for 24 fires, figures show.
Ives said the Highway 31 fire along with the Windsor Green fire serve as important reminders about the threat Carolina Forest residents face from wildfires. He noted that had the wind been blowing out of the north instead of from the south, the fire would’ve targeted Carolina Forest instead of North Myrtle Beach.
“It’s only the wind conditions that spared Carolina Forest from having any homes burned in that fire,” he said. “The origin was the northeast corner of the burn area. Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction, we could’ve had a huge loss of acreage.”
Carolina Forest is no stranger to wildfires.
In addition to last year’s inferno in Windsor Green, the Legends Fire II of 2012, the Hornet Fire of 2011 and original Legends fire of 2001 have threatened Carolina Forest and surrounding areas.
Jones with the Forestry Commission said the state fire protection agency has come a long way since the Highway 31 fire.
He said the Forestry Commission has replaced and upgraded several pieces of equipment, including tractors that in some cases were 20 years old.
At the time of the Highway 31 fire, the Forestry Commission had about 125 bulldozers. Now the state agency has about 160, Jones said.
The Forestry Commission has also added more positions, many of which were trimmed or not filled during the Great Recession, which struck a year before the Highway 31 fire.
“We had a pretty much full staff until about 2008. The recession happened and we started losing positions through attrition that didn’t get filled,” Jones said. “After the [S.C.] 31 fire, legislators understood we needed enough capacity to respond to these events.”
In addition, the department bought two “firetracks,” special vehicles designed to deliver water to firefighters working in treacherous terrain and boggy areas, such as the Carolina bays that fueled the Highway 31 fire.
The Forestry Commission has also ordered a new remote weather station for Horry County.
“The station will provide real-time weather and fire danger information to firefighters, allowing them to more accurately predict fire behavior,” the commission said in a news release.