The biggest and costliest fire in South Carolina history started on April 22, 2009.
“It was definitely the worst day of my political career,” said North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley. “It’s devastating to a mayor, as well as a citizen, to see your neighbors lose [their] home, lose everything they’ve ever worked for. You just feel so helpless in so many ways. But I do think the city did everything they possibly could to reach out the residents after the fire and help them in any way they possibly could to help them get back to a normal life.”
By April 23, 2009, dozens of media outlets descended on Horry County to cover the fire that burned more than 19,000 acres, destroyed 76 homes, did $50 million in damage and took more than 730 firefighter and support personnel to conquer.
Ten years later, the fire has had a permanent impact on how things are done in South Carolina.
“Who would have ever thought [in] North Myrtle Beach, a small vacation community, we probably learned the greatest lesson in firefighting in the Southeast,” said former North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Director William H. Bailey, who now serves as the South Carolina state representative for District 104.
The fire started on a Wednesday at an address on Woodlawn Drive off S.C 90 near International Drive. It was a small debris fire that got out of hand.
Horry County Fire Rescue had been there twice on April 18, four days before the big event, to put out a small brush fire, said former fire spokesman Todd Cartner.
On April 22, it started up again.
“The call came out almost 12:30 p.m. on that Wednesday,” Cartner said. “We just thought we’d just basically had a small brush fire that needed to be put out. Well, it jumped the road of the street that it was on. So it got into the woods, and then when it got into the woods, we didn’t have any equipment that could get into the woods, so we had to call [The South Carolina] Forestry [Commission.] And Forestry sent out the plow. And the winds picked up that day, so it spread pretty quick. And then the winds died down when it started getting dark, so we thought everybody was fine.”
Mike Ney, the Pee Dee Regional Forester for the commission who assumed the incident command role during the first attack on the fire, said firefighters initially pushed the fire away from S.C. 90 toward Lewis Ocean Bay.
“We had been doing a lot of controlled burns in this area, so we were kind of familiar with the area that we were pushing it into, and with great hopes it would drop that fire out and actually stop the fire,” Ney said. “It did calm the fire down a little bit, maybe 10- or 15-minutes’ worth, and then the fire actually was able to jump through the area that we’d either control burned or some areas that we hadn’t control burned yet.”
Bailey, North Myrtle Beach’s public safety director at the time, said the city thought the fire was headed in a different direction.
“The anticipation was because [of] the weather and [how] the wind was blowing, this was going to be an event in the Grand Dunes area,” Bailey said.
“We did not have any idea that it was coming over to Barefoot Resort,” Hatley added. “They said it was under control and that we were out of danger at that time. Just like any fire, things can change.”
Bailey said the Forestry Commission was left in charge that night. They planned to use bulldozers to set firebreaks in an effort to stop the fire from spreading.
By 7:30 p.m., the Forestry Commission had sent in 16 plow units, 12 support personnel, a mechanic and an airplane, according to commission documents. By 9 p.m., the direction of the wind changed.
“What ended up happening is the fire was so hot that it created its own weather system,” said Bailey, whose assertion was backed up by Forestry Commission records. “It actually changed direction and trapped the guys on the bulldozers where they had to use fire shields.”
Ney said the fire was so hot it created a jet stream that pushed the fire in a different direction.
“There was no forecast of the winds shifting,” Ney said. “That jet stream that dropped down pushed the fire back across onto [S.C.] 22 and went across and burned the houses.”
The Forestry Commission says the two firefighters who deployed fire shelters marked just the second time in department history where such shelters had to be used.
“That’s when they actually had to get in those fire shelters and get down in the fire break, and so there was dead silence for 10 or 20 minutes and a lot of praying,” Ney said.
Cartner left the scene shortly before 12:30 a.m. on April 23, an early Thursday morning. He got home, still smelling like smoke.
“I took a shower and went to bed,” Cartner said. “I’d no more closed my eyes when my pager went off and the deputy chief called me back out and said the fire – the winds had picked up quite a bit – and the fire was moving and it had already jumped [S.C.] 22. In that timeframe, from the time that I left until the time that he called me back, it had probably went five or six miles in the woods pretty quick, and that was less than 30, 45 minutes.”
As the fire Jumped S.C. 22 and started heading towards Barefoot Resort, communication issues became apparent.
“Our dispatch was notified from the officers on the bridge that saw it cross,” Bailey said, adding that county dispatchers didn’t have the same information as North Myrtle dispatchers, which caused a delay in communication. “I don’t think they were arguing, they just weren’t informed. If all the information about the fire had gone through a command post, everybody would have been on the same page. But everybody was doing their own thing and it hurt us in the end.”
While firefighters set backfires and plowed firebreaks to contain the blaze, it was harder for them to get deep in the woods because they couldn’t drive on the peat moss.
Even if a spot was contained, the 40-to-60 mph wind gusts sent embers flying for miles. But the out-of-state firefighters that came to help didn’t have the same radio frequencies as the locals.
“We had firefighters from all over the Southeast, even California, that came in to fight this fire,” Cartner said. “They did not have a way to communicate with the people that were local, and that’s what the issue was with communication.”
That night, residents were evacuated from their homes in Barefoot as flying embers set houses on fire. The heat of the inferno, combined with the gusty wind, melted car frames and caused what both Cartner and Bailey described as the “perfect storm.”
“I just remember that it was just absolutely devastating to the people in the North Myrtle Beach area, because the smoke and the embers covered the entire town,” said county councilman Harold Worley. “I was actually on top of my hotel (Ocean Drive Resort) with a water hose wetting the roof down. Embers as big as my finger, red hot, were falling on the roof. It’s a wonder we didn’t have more than what we did.”
Cartner said the Barefoot house fires had reached temperatures exceeding 15,000 degrees, compared to normal house fires that can get up to 2,200 degrees.
“The way the wind moved, it would come in and just completely destroy the house, I mean nothing left at all. It was just a slab there. Not even debris from the fire, that’s how hot it was,” said Cartner.
“To not lose a single soul or pet, it’s remarkable,” Bailey said. “Once one home caught on fire, the way that wind was blowing, it went from one house to another and there was nothing the guys could do except set a perimeter around where it was blazing.”
By 10 a.m. Wednesday, Cartner was staring down more than 60 cameras from more than 75 different media outlets, including “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show.” During the news conference, officials thought around 50 homes had burned. But when the smoke cleared, there were 76 homes destroyed and another 97 damaged.
Afterwards, officials led reporters on a media tour of the area.
“When we took people down to where the homes were, it was dead silence. No questions, nobody said a word,” Cartner said. “It was just complete silence. They were like ‘Oh my God, this is just insane.’ And, of course, there were questions as we put them in the van and took them back to where we were staging. But that was just surreal.”
Remarkably, the most damaging fire in South Carolina history caused no casualties: no one died, not even a pet. And no firefighters were injured.
Some firefighters who had been stationed near S.C. 22 since the start of the fire didn’t get any information on damage until Friday or Saturday.
“Some of the ones that were assigned to the [S.C.] 22 area didn’t even know how many houses were lost,” Cartner said. “They assumed there were tons of fatalities and everything else, and when I told them ‘We don’t have any injuries reported, no fatalities reported,’ there were firefighters that broke down and cried, because they were like ‘Oh my Gosh, are you kidding? We prevented that from happening.’”
The fire, which was not contained until April 28 and wasn’t controlled until May 20, ultimately changed the way South Carolina battles big fires and increased fire safety awareness locally.
While battling the fire, many of the agencies had problems talking to each other. A Forestry Commission after-action report painted a picture of communication issues, and laid out dozens of recommendations on how to improve in areas included but not limited to, operations, public information, command staff and incident management, and interagency communications.
When the Forestry Commission’s incident management team took over command on the Thursday morning after the houses burned, North Myrtle Beach, Horry County and the Forestry Commission all established their own command posts, and a unified command wasn’t in place until that afternoon.
After the fire, Cartner said incident management teams assigned to battle big blazes would bring their own radios with frequencies that everybody can use.
“They have bought radio systems that they can use in a hurry that may not be as powerful or have as many channels as what would be needed on a local level, but they’ll have one or two, three, channels that are a less costly radio and they’ll have more of them so they can communicate a lot easier,” Cartner said.
The fire also gave the commission’s Incident Management Team valuable experience, a team that has since been expanded.
“It really helped us as an agency see that we also need to focus more toward our IMT team and really develop that,” said forestry spokesperson GraceAnna Cooper. “Since then, we’ve brought on younger employees and stepped them into trainee roles, and we’ve really made our IMT team, or incident management team, grow.”
The Barefoot fire was only the second time the IMT had been deployed, said Ney.
“Since then, they’ve been out on multiple incidents, not just fires, but also hurricanes and all hazard incidents,” Cooper said.
While neither Horry County nor North Myrtle Beach could implement such a law, the Barefoot Resort Homeowners Association banned members from using the extremely flammable pine straw as landscaping.
“It was very smart,” Mayor Hatley said. “That’s one of the things that you learn from one of these types of fires, is you certainly don’t need to be using flammable material in your flowerbed when you live close together and you live close to raw, undeveloped land.”
In addition to the HOA regs, the city also increased the number of firefighters trained to combat forest fires.
“One thing that came out of it, we have more firemen that are trained in wildfire training than ever before,” Hatley said. “We’re more conscious of the fact that there’s a lot of land around the Barefoot area that has a lot of undergrowth. We have much bigger, better equipment than what we’ve had in the past. When we hear of a fire, we’re more conscious and very concerned. Any time you hear of a fire near Barefoot, it immediately brings you back to that day.”
Even now, the Barefoot fire serves as an example of the type of incident that could be prevented under a county burn-ban proposal being championed by councilman Worley.
County staff are working on developing a set of criteria that county officials could use to ban burning in certain areas. Previous attempts failed because any ordinance would have to be applied equally to all areas, meaning arbitrarily banning fire in a particular area would be unconstitutional.
The new proposal would create a set of criteria that officials could use as a rubric to determine if an area is more susceptible to fire than others, and implement a burn ban in that specific area.
“This not only came from Little River Neck, but also Barefoot,” Worley said. “Because when that vegetation grows back again, there’s going to be areas out there that we want to have a burn ban. But it’s got to pass the criteria... so we don’t have to do it everywhere, we just do it in certain areas that meet the criteria.”
Worley suggested that the area between S.C. 22 and North Myrtle Beach may eventually fit the burn ban criteria.
“Certain areas in there, we need a burn ban,” he said, “because somebody could go out there and start a fire, and boom-boom, it’s gone.”
How you can stop the next big fire
The S.C. Highway 31 fire, or Barefoot fire as it was locally known, took down houses without the main fire actually reaching the neighborhood. Flying embers set houses on fire and it spread in kind.
But the South Carolina Forestry Commission offers a free fire risk-assessment for communities, where a forester will come an inspect the homes and point out any fire hazards.
After the risk-assessment, communities can apply to become a “Firewise” community, which is a program run through the National Fire Protection Association.
Horry County has the most Firewise neighborhoods in South Carolina, housing 16 of the state’s 35 communities.
The Farm in Carolina Forest is one such community.
“They actually had a forester come in, take pictures of the houses that are at-risk and just some of the things that they see specific, whether it’s gutters, pine straw, fences, propane tanks in the yard, anything that they find specific that is going to be a threat to their house or a threat to firefighter safety,” Cooper said.
Both the Forestry Commission and Horry County Fire Rescue offer the service.
“We try to preach Firewise as much as we can because that’s really going to be the number 1 thing that’s going to save homes in the area; is making landowners aware of what’s happening and how they can protect their property in the future,” Cooper said.