MURRELLS INLET, SC (WMBF) - On July 20, 2016, Huntington Beach State Park’s nature center was engulfed in flames in the early-morning hours after being struck by lightning.
It was a devastating loss, and about two dozen animals were killed. Now, the park is looking forward to a late summer 2020 opening date after a handful of setbacks since the fire.
“It was a huge, huge loss. And I think especially with the times that we’re learning through now, everyone is yearning to return to some sense of normality. For me, personally, having the nature center back, that was a huge chunk of my life. So for me, personally, and I think for Huntington Beach State Park, having the nature center back will be getting some sense of normalcy back in our lives," park ranger Mike Walker.
Walker said he’s run the nature center for almost 20 years, and has continued the programs outside of the center since it burned down. Those programs have been on halt due to COVID-19, but he’s excited to resume them when the time comes.
Walker remembers the night the nature center caught fire well. He said he usually checked on the animals during a big storm. He was leaving his home to do so, until another big storm rolled in.
“So I decided I wouldn’t go that night. So sometime in the middle of the night it was struck by lightning, and by the time anyone staying in the campground across the street saw the flames, it was totally engulfed. And by the time I got the news, there was nothing left but smoldering remains,” he said.
Walker credits Midway Fire Rescue with keeping the fire from spreading to the rest of the park. No person died in the fire, only the reptiles and the fish inside. There was no way to rescue them.
Walker said since the fire, the park has dedicated a lot of money to repair damage after hurricanes and tropical storms. The nature center was insured, but insurance couldn’t cover the entirety of its cost to rebuild, he said.
Donations covered the rest, specifically the non-profit Friends of Huntington Beach State Park. While the nature center is newly finished, exhibits and tanks still need to be installed. Walker said the coronavirus closed the installation company and stopped progress, but the company reopened Monday. He hopes to see them come to the park soon to finish the project.
Until then, Walker has been raising some of the animals visitors will see inside the new nature center himself.
“So all the animals that we (have), the different snakes that we’ve been using for programs for the last few years, I’ve got fish that I’ve been raising up since little tiny babies for the last few years. We’ve been doing everything in our power to get all the tiny pieces of the puzzle together so that once the exhibits get here and gets installed we can get moving and get the building open to our visitors as quickly as we can," Walker said.
He added that once the tanks and exhibits are installed, the nature center should open about a month later. According to Walker, they’ll also get baby alligators from Alligator Adventure and are looking for a stingray and horseshoe crab for the interactive tank.
Huntington Beach State Park’s new nature center is based off the blueprints of the old one. Walker said it’s almost exactly the same but has climate-controlled bathrooms and more storage. There’s also a pollination garden in the works for visitors to watch for birds and butterflies.