Wildfires in rain-starved Carolinas and Virginia burn homes and force evacuations

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AP Photo SCWG105, SCFLO106, SCWG109, SCWG108


Associated Press Writer

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) -- Wildfires chased some residents from churches and led others to seek them out for sanctuary as flames fed by strong winds spread in the rain-starved Carolinas and Virginia. Authorities hoped Monday to figure out what ignited the blazes.

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

Lewis Cooper fled the flames -- one of the state's 106 forest fires -- with his wife, and said the heat was intense from seven football fields away.

"The flames were at the top of the trees and I could feel the heat," said Cooper, 37, who went to a Baptist church being used as a shelter to check on his neighbors.

Joseph Schell got word about Conway's 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!"

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.

Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said officials would begin Monday investigating what may have sparked the fire. Cartner also said daylight would help determine the extent of the damage.

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, town 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.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency Sunday and activated the Virginia National Guard to be available to help battle wildfires that have broken out in several areas across the state.

Appalachian Power said more than 75,000 of its customers in western Virginia lost electricity because of downed power lines, including more than 41,000 in the Roanoke area. Authorities responded to numerous reports of downed trees, some of which obstructed traffic, knocked out electrical lines or fell on homes.

Elsewhere in the state, 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.