Image: Aerial of fire destruction
Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Destruction from the fire in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., included these woods and some of the homes around them at the Barefoot Resort community.
updated 4/24/2009 6:53:18 PM ET 2009-04-24T22:53:18

They flock from other states and climes to the coast known as the Grand Strand, first as tourists, and later as residents, captivated by ocean views, rolling green fairways and the relaxed lifestyle. Most knew that an occasional hurricane was part of the bargain but didn't expect a different danger — a raging wildfire like the one that destroyed 70 homes this week.

"I always said if we lose this house it will be a hurricane," said 60-year-old Kathy Horvat, standing Friday outside her home in the Barefoot Resort. Just down the road, police at a checkpoint allowed no one but residents back into the most heavily damaged part of the resort. "It never occurred to me, never, that there might be a fire like that which just went through."

The fire early Thursday devastated a nearby part of the resort, forcing hundreds to flee and leaving damage which, in some ways, resembled the aftermath of a hurricane.

In recent years what was once woodland has been developed.

"There was a fire back there 30 years ago," said Horvat, who, with her husband, is a transplant from Pittsburgh and runs a title insurance company. "It's not something that in our normal way we worry about."

The Grand Stand is the 60 mile gently curving reach of beaches along the northeast coast of South Carolina. Myrtle Beach, studded with high rise hotels, amusements and shopping malls, is the heart of South Carolina's $16 billion tourism industry.

Once a relatively sleepy coastal resort, the Myrtle Beach area now attracts an estimated 13 million vacationers a year to one of the state's fastest growing areas as newcomers like Horvat move in.

High-rise hotels and condominiums stud the shore where 20 years ago mom-and-pop motels stood. The beach was once largely deserted after Labor Day but now most hotels remain open year-round. In all, the area has more than 80,000 hotel rooms.

Peat a fire problem
As development pushes inland from the coast, houses are going up farther west in wooded areas known as Carolina bays: shallow egg-shaped depressions along the coast ranging in size from a few acres to thousands of acres. They are densely filled with plant life and often have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks.

Peat in some bays fueled this week's fire, officials said, and flames jumped into the subdivision near a six-lane highway known as the Carolina Bays Parkway.

Phyllis Fessman, who relocated here six years ago, doesn't think development needs to stay clear of such areas altogether.

"I don't believe that matters. There is plenty of open space between these houses," said Fessman, 63. "As soon as I learned about the fire I put my sprinkler system on. I believe if everyone had done that, it would have made a difference because sometimes everybody has to take responsibility for their own things."

Hurricane prep helped
Jane Lastes, 61, who also retired to the neighborhood six years ago from Meridian, Conn., said preparations for hurricanes helped her in the spur-of-the-moment evacuation from the fire on Thursday.

"We had the hurricane preparedness bin with all the documents in it, never thinking I would have to use it for this," she said. "We grabbed the kitty, the litter box and we were gone."

Ann Toothman, 60, who moved to the area from Belgium last year, was waiting Friday to go into her home which was livable, but took some fire damage. She said she started crying when she saw a map showing she could return.

"The whole time I lived here I worried about hurricanes. It never occurred to me to worry about a wildfire," she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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