Wildfires in rain-starved Carolinas burns homes, forces evacuations

Eds: INCORPORATES BC-South Carolina Fire. UPDATES with structures destroyed in S.C., ADDS wildfires in N.C.; ADDS byline.

AP Photos

By PAGE IVEY

Associated Press Writer

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) -- Wind-whipped wildfires across the rain-starved Carolinas chased churchgoers from worship on Sunday and forced residents to flee dozens of homes threatened by flames.

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

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

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 in a wedge-shaped area bounded by three roads just north of Conway.

"It's not contained or under control at this time. We're still working on it has hard as we can," Cartner said.

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.

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

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.

A plow and helicopter from the state forest resources division joined local firefighters to battle the wildfire.

Power lines knocked down by high winds left a couple thousand customers in the dark across North Carolina, and may have caused a four-acre brush fire in Haywood County.

The state 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.