Residents recall most destructive fire in state history

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) The three year anniversary of the most destructive fire in state history began Sunday. Highway 31 Fire ignited April 22nd, 2009 and was not contained until April 30th. The weeklong fire burned more than 19,000 acres of land.

Monday April 23rd marked the day the most destruction happened. Around 2 a.m., the fire behavior became extreme and began to move at rapid rates of speed, moving from Highway 31 and crossing over Highway 22 towards Barefoot Resort.

Total home damages estimated at $25 million. 76 homes were completely destroyed and 97 others were damaged. At the height of the fire, as many as 4,000 evacuations were in place.

Tom Collins, a Barefoot Resort resident recalled the night he almost lost his home, and said he is lucky because most of his neighbor's homes were destroyed.

"I thought we had to get going right away so I almost dragged my wife to the car. She lost her pocketbook and her shoes in the street. And we were walking around Walmart at about 2 o'clock in the morning looking for clothes to put on," Collins said.

Communities across the county have gathered and joined a group called Firewise.  According to firewise.org, it is a nationwide program that encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in the effort to protect people and property from wildfire risks.

Homeowners of Briarcliffe Acres in North Myrtle Beach achieved Firewise Community status following their experiences with the Highway 31 Fire. They are expected to conduct a "chipping day" Saturday April 28th, in an attempt to rid their neighborhood of overgrowth and unwanted vegetative material.

Collins and his wife weren't allowed back to their property for two days, and they had no idea what they were going "home" to.

"We had reports that many homes were destroyed so when we came back, when we turned the corner up here, we were kind of holding our breath," Collins said.

Collins said he felt lucky his home suffered only minor fire damages.

"Fortunately our home got some fire damage but it wasn't destroyed. It wasn't burned to the ground. But all around us our neighbors homes were just gone, just rubble. We're lucky," Collins said.

South Carolina Registered Forester, Mike Bozzo said the type of mulch many homeowners use causes fires to spread quickly, which is exactly what happened during the fire three years ago.

"Pine straw in areas {like this} where embers, like in Barefoot Resort, where they blew into these mulch beds that were filled with pine straw is that they're very flammable because they can dry out very quickly with just the slightest drop in the humidity."

Bozzo said pine straw is used by many homeowners because it's inexpensive and easy to replace each year. He said people should not use pine straw if they live within 30 feet of a forest.  Bozzo said communities living near forests should take part in Firewise.

"There's things you can do that not only make your own home safer, but if you can have your whole community buy into it and create a Firewise community, that'll prevent your home or your community from burning in the next wildfire."

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