Wildfires in rain-starved Carolinas, Va., burn homes, force evacuations

Eds: UPDATES damage, family returning to neighborhood.

AP Photo VANOV202

By PAGE IVEY

Associated Press Writer

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) -- Wind-whipped wildfires chased churchgoers from worship, forced hundreds of residents to flee homes and closed highways across the rain-starved Carolinas and Virginia on Sunday.

Twelve small structures, including at least one business and an unknown number of homes and sheds, were damaged by a blaze near the South Carolina coast; no injuries were reported, authorities said.

About 60 homes were briefly evacuated Sunday afternoon as the fire sent smoke billowing above this city of about 11,000 people about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.

"The flames were at the top of the trees and I could feel the heat," said Lewis Cooper, 37, who fled the fire.

In North Carolina, winds gusting up to 60 mph in some areas toppled trees and power lines and also fanned brush fires.

The Willow Spring Free Will Baptist Church in Cleveland, N.C., just south of Raleigh, was holding a worship service when a fire forced it to evacuate, the town's Fire Chief Chris Ellington said.

The church was spared any damage as high winds whipped the flames across 50 acres, burning two empty barns and threatening about 20 homes, Ellington said. No injuries were reported.

Hundreds of western Virginia homes were under a mandatory evacuation as wildfires spread. High winds took down trees and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency and activated the Virginia National Guard to help fight wildfires.

Bedford County issued an evacuation order for the Montvale area after a wildfire grew up to more than two-thirds of a square mile, or 500 acres, by Sunday, said county spokesman Bill Hoy.

Since then, 30-plus-mph winds created so much smoke that gauging the fire's size became impossible. The number of people affected by the evacuation was not immediately known. An elementary school was set up as an evacuation center.

In South Carolina, Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said the fire burned nearly a third of a square mile, or up to 200 acres, of forest before it was contained just north of Conway.

More than 100 firefighters battling the blaze were frustrated by wind gusts of up to 30 mph that sent the flames jumping over parts of one highway. A fire destroyed a consignment shop before firefighters could douse the flames.

Joseph Schell got word about evacuations from one neighbor and, as smoke made it difficult to breathe, told another, "Get your dogs, get in your car, and get out of here."

Schell, 37, drove his wife, three children and husky named Jessica to a Baptist church being used as a shelter.

On the way, he said he saw firefighters dousing flames as they swept across yards. Several hours later, after the evacuation order was lifted, the Schells surveyed their neighborhood by flashlight, calling out to friends as they walked through the smokey air to make sure everyone was OK. Their home was fine, but fire had gutted one vacant house and melted the siding on others.

"Somebody was looking down on us today," said Deborah Schell, 39.

Red Cross officials planned to keep the church shelter open in case people could not get back into their homes.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol reported a brush fire reduced visibility to zero on Interstate 85 in northern part of the state, forcing police to reroute traffic onto a secondary highway.

All of North Carolina was under a red flag warning, meaning outdoor burning is prohibited. The warning stems from the passage of a strong cold front that whipped up the strong winds.

The eastern half of South Carolina was under a red flag fire warning Sunday, with winds gusting up to 30 mph and low humidity, according to the National Weather Service. The ground also is dry, which creates dangerous wildfire conditions.

Around South Carolina, 106 forest fires were reported by Sunday evening, state officials said.