April 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Fire ravages resort area during major tourist season

Bruce Smith Associated Press
Associated Press photo

A car and houses lay destroyed Thursday in the Barefoot Resort community in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., after the state’s biggest wildfire in more than three decades swept through the area.
(Full-size photo)

Tourist destination

Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area is the anchor of South Carolina’s $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college students looking for a cheap spring break destination and families who fill miles of budget hotels in the summer. Tens of thousands of golfers visit each year, and some of the region’s courses are among the best in the nation.

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – South Carolina’s biggest wildfire in more than three decades – a blaze four miles wide – destroyed dozens of homes Thursday and threatened some of the area’s world-famous golf courses at the height of the spring tourist season.

The flames, fed by tinder-dry scrubland, forced hundreds of people to flee.

The fire got within 1 1/2 miles of Route 17, the main coastal road that links beachfront towns and is lined with fast-food restaurants, beachwear stores and trinket shops.

The blaze scorched about 19,600 acres, or about 31 square miles, over the past two days and then veered north, heading away from the high-rise hotels that line Myrtle Beach. There were no reports of injuries, and authorities said they had not determined what sparked the flames.

Fueled by dry underbrush and highly combustible swamp peat, the blaze leveled about 70 homes and damaged 100 others early Thursday as it jumped a four-lane highway. The flames also forced authorities to evacuate 2,500 people. Some returned home Thursday evening.

Horry County officials said in a statement Thursday night the fire was 40 percent contained.

Much of the damage was concentrated at Barefoot Resort, a sprawling complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.

“The house is completely gone,” said Rachel Plaga, a 38-year-old nurse, who later began sobbing. “It was like Armageddon back there. There was nothing. Everything was gone. My whole life. My kid’s whole life. It was horrific.”

The fire appeared to hopscotch through the neighborhood, which was draped in a thick haze, and some of the rubble still smoldered hours later.

After they were evacuated, some 200 residents spent the rest of the day in and around the nearby House of Blues honkytonk, where officials gave them updates.

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