MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Authorities said Friday that a man burning yard debris might have sparked a wildfire that has charred about 31 square miles near Myrtle Beach since Wednesday.
The wildfire has destroyed 69 homes, damaged another 100 and caused at least $16 million in damage, officials said Friday. No injuries have been reported.
Authorities said the fire started last weekend. A man burning yard debris called a local fire department when the fire started getting out of hand, and authorities said they thought it had been extinguished. Gusty winds Wednesday apparently rekindled it and sent it racing across Horry County.
Marc Torchi was cited with unauthorized burning and allowing a fire to spread to another person's property, but it was unclear Friday whether he would face criminal charges. The citations carry an approximate $760 fine.
Torchi's wife, Megan Brogan, said the family has been receiving death threats since the wildfire broke out, but she and neighbors said the firefighters who twice responded to the weekend fire are more to blame for the wildfire.
"I have to leave my property that, thank God, didn't burn down because they are trying to blame this on my husband," Brogan said.
"They didn't come in with a bulldozer or anything," neighbor Al Whittaker, 44, said. "Sunday, Monday and Tuesday goes by. How come nobody comes by and checks? ... How is this thing coming back on him five days later? It's one of the more twisted, insensible things I've heard."
Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the South Carolina Forestry Commission, said it's common for brush fires to appear to be out but then smolder underground and rekindle. He said blame belongs to the person who set the initial fire.
"The fire department didn't start the fire," Jones said. "Someone lit it and somebody let it escape, and that's where this all started."
Todd Cartner, a spokesman for Horry County Fire Rescue, said his agency didn't respond to Torchi's yard fire, adding that there are too many potential causes of the massive wildfire for the initial yard blaze to be linked to it.
"We are not associating this fire on Saturday as the same fire on Wednesday, even though it's in the same area. We got no calls from Saturday to Wednesday," Cartner said.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said Friday that people should remain focused on putting out the fires for good and not on finding someone to blame.
Calm winds overnight Thursday allowed firefighters to gain traction against the flames, and the fire didn't intensify Friday, said Mike Bocco, the state Forestry Commission official overseeing the fight.
"It's looking really good so far," said Holly Welch, a spokeswoman for the state Forestry Commission. "We had a really calm night, there wasn't a whole lot of wind."
By late Friday, Horry County officials said the fire posed no immediate threat to any homes, and firefighters were working to knock down several hot spots.
Some of the 2,500 people who had to flee their homes in the Barefoot Landing development early Thursday were allowed to return Thursday evening. The rest were let back into the area Friday morning.
Bob Portteus' home was among those devoured by the fire. He said he plans to rebuild.
"We lost everything we had," said Portteus, 79. "I have peace of mind. It's stuff I lost. I don't look back, (and) I don't look forward. I'm enjoying life right now.
A few lots away, Ashley Setzer surveyed damage to her home and said she was relieved it wasn't worse.
"It's fantastic," said Setzer, who is seven months pregnant. "They'll have us back in the house before the baby comes."
Portteus and Setzer live in the part of Barefoot Landing north of S.C. Highway 31, which abuts the wooded area through which the wildfire raged. Homes to the south of S.C. 31 were untouched by the fire.
"The problem is you feel guilty because your house is standing, and I know three blocks (away) is devastation," resident Jane Lastes said.
"We know most of those people back there who have lost their property, and we feel very, very badly about the fact that they have," resident Bill Hancock said.
"As far as the community stepping up, it really stepped up in a big way," Hancock said. "They gave rooms for people to stay in (Thursday) night, (and) they provided food."
Firefighters were giving special attention Friday to protecting the Poplar community on S.C. Highway 90 after winds started pushing the fire to the north and away from the coast.
Chiffon Ford's home backs up to woods in the Poplar community, but she said fire crews worked around her property for much of the day. Reconnaissance planes also glided over the smoke plumes to keep an eye on the fire.
"They were going around and putting the water down," Ford said. "They were doing the best they could do."
South Carolina's worst fire in more than three decades cut a path 4 miles wide through tinder-dry scrubland but skipped its way through housing developments, decimating some homes while leaving their neighbors untouched.
That's not unusual, Bocco said, because the fire's embers can travel far distances before landing to create blazes of their own.
"A lot of times, the big, raging fire that burns through a forest is not what actually burns the homes down," he said. "The wind is picking up those embers, blowing them several hundred yards into the lawns (and) into the pine straw mulch around the homes."
The fire started several miles inland Wednesday, near subdivisions and golf courses that have been carved from forest and swamps over decades.
On Thursday, the fire got within 1½ miles of U.S. Highway 17, the main coastal road that links beachfront towns and is lined with fast-food restaurants, beachwear stores and trinket shops.
"We've got a good line up ahead of that right now, and hopefully we can contain it there, and the winds won't give us a problem as far as blowing embers across the water," Bocco said.
Tourists and year-round residents alike scattered from Myrtle Beach, which anchors the state's $16 billion annual tourist industry. College students are drawn here for a cheap spring break destination, and families fill miles of budget hotels in the summer.
Smoke and ash from the fire created a thick haze along North Carolina's southern coast, and the National Weather Service issued advisories for Brunswick and Columbus counties. Smoke could be seen and smelled as far away as Fayetteville and Sanford, and a Code Orange air-quality advisory was issued for counties from Cumberland to the Virginia state line.
On Thursday, a column of smoke rose on the inland side of the Intracoastal Waterway, a canal as wide as a football field that separates the city's main drag from homes. At times the smoke seemed to block out the sun, casting an orange sheen on the vehicles of motorists slowing to gawk at the scene.
Just a few miles south along the coast, people were unaffected. Golfers kept their tee times and tourists spread out on the beaches. Hotel managers, who offered vouchers to the evacuees, said they could not even smell the smoke.
As ash fell, the governor issued a state of emergency, and schools closed early. But North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley managed to promote the area while announcing the number of homes destroyed.
"Certainly, come on to the Grand Strand area and enjoy yourself," Hatley said.