On April 23, North Myrtle Beach residents woke up to the news Barefoot Resort homes were on fire, many destroyed, and the Horry County wildfire thought to be contained was spreading.
On the same morning Barefoot Resort residents were sheltering in North Myrtle Beach City Hall, the Aquatic & Fitness Center and Barefoot Community Church after a hurried evacuation in the middle of the night. Some wondered if their homes were spared while others, whose homes were on fire when they left, knew the answer.
As the North Myrtle Beach community pulled together to offer help, coordinate housing and provide funds for those who lost everything, questions about the fire began to emerge.
Some Barefoot Resort residents questioned the way they were notified about the wildfire that swept through their community burning 70 homes to the ground, damaging dozens more and creating $19 million in damage. In response to their questions Mayor Marilyn Hatley formed a wildfire task force to look into the questions raised at a Barefoot homeowners meeting.
Hatley said the task force was needed to see what exactly happened. “Any time you have a major disaster happen in your community you need to do a total review from start to finish. This will show how we are strong and how we can improve ourselves.”
Councilmen Greg Duckworth and Hank Thomas were appointed to the task force with Duckworth heading up the group. Other members included Horry County Councilman Paul Prince, Chairman of the North Myrtle Beach Planning Commission Fred Coyne and Tom Powell, representing the Barefoot Residential Association Board of Directors.
“We want to respond quickly to the community. We want this report to be done in a timely fashion because we owe it to the Barefoot residents,” Duckworth said when the task force was appointed.
On May 21 the Highway 31 Wildfire Task Force lived up to their promise of fast results when they presented their report and offered recommendations for future building.
Calling the wildfire South Carolina’s worst Wildland-Urban Interface Fire, Duckworth said the task force was a “collaborative team approach with the question of how can we do better in the future?”
Paul Whitten, speaking for Horry County public safety, said the fire originally started around noon on Wednesday. “Over the next 13 hours winds and local weather conditions made the fire challenging,” he said.
He said during the day additional fire equipment was added and additional firefighters called in to assist. The fire was concentrated on Highway 90 near high density development.
Whitten said their main concern was to control the fire and protect structures in the path of the fire.
The S.C. Forestry Service was called and other fire departments in the area responded with help.
The main purpose of the S.C. Forestry Service is to fight wildfires. They brought in plows and other equipment to assist. As the fire spread numerous actions were taken to slow the fire including lighting back fires to clear debris, plowing and creating fire breaks.
According to Darryl Jones of the S.C. Forestry Commission the Highway 31 Wildfire was hard to define and instead of dying down at night, as fires generally do, this fire became more intense. The fire also moved faster and created winds up to 40 miles per hour.
According to the timeline given, around 1:45 a.m. on Thursday the wildfire shifted to the east and merged with a back fire creating a fire storm shooting flames over 270 feet into the air. Showers of embers stirred up by the winds headed for Barefoot Resort and within homes were on fire.
North Myrtle Beach Public Safety officers on the Highway 22 overpass saw the explosion of flames and quickly notified others as they rushed to Barefoot to begin evacuating residents.
Duckworth said the fire had “unusual patterns for our part of the world.” Using the U.S. Forestry Service computer models to plot the fire showed the fire should not have reached Barefoot until late Thursday if at all.
“The fire exceeded expectation and the way it should have spread,” Duckworth said. “When a fire burns like this one, creating its own weather, it is hard to predict. Embers are thrown out and pine straw used for mulching and vinyl siding become a problem.”
North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Director William Bailey said his department was helping Horry County throughout the day which accounts for the police officers location on the Highway 22 overpass when the fire turned and headed into Barefoot Resort.
He said once the fires merged and jumped the highway there was no stopping it. Embers were being blown a mile ahead of the fire, said Bailey.
By 2:02 a.m. on Thursday homes in Barefoot were fully involved in flames and evacuation of the area was underway.
“In 10 minutes 27 people were working to evacuate Barefoot residents. We were working ahead of the fire to get people out,” said Bailey. “At 2:10 we requested a reverse 911 call from the county.”
“Embers were flying and there was fire everywhere,” he said. “Officers had to drive through flames and smoke to get people out. But the residents remained calm and evacuated quickly.”
Within 40 minutes 2,500 Barefoot residents were evacuated by public safety officers.
“The heroics of the officers saved a lot of lives,” said Duckworth.
“In the future we need to respect nature when we build. The way we develop needs to be changed. We need to build with the right kind of building products, correct our landscaping and learn from this experience.”