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

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Associated Press Writer

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) -- Investigators went to work Monday trying to figure out what ignited hundreds of weekend wildfires that chased some residents from churches and led others to seek them out for sanctuary.

The wind that had fanned the flames in the rain-starved Carolinas and Virginia had died down Monday. The earliest rain in the forecast for South Carolina was Tuesday.

The high winds and wildfires caused both Democratic presidential hopefuls -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama -- to cancel appearances scheduled in Roanoke, Va. Virginia's presidential primaries are on Tuesday. Thousands of customers in the region still had no electricity because of damage caused by the fires and wind.

About 60 homes in Conway were briefly evacuated Sunday when a fire sent smoke billowing above the city of about 11,000 people, about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.

Lewis Cooper fled the flames -- one of South Carolina's 111 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 buildings, 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.

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 not damaged but wind whipped the flames across 50 acres, burning two empty barns and threatening about 20 homes, Ellington said. No injuries were reported.

North Carolina forestry spokesman Brian Haines said Monday that crews had contained 112 fires on about 1,000 acres across the state. Some of the fires on Sunday started when strong wind downed power lines. Other brush fires were sparked by careless trash burning.

State and local officials estimated that more than 100 wildfires burned several thousand acres across Virginia.

Virginia "may have some fires still burning but mostly it's under control," said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. "We're in much better shape than we were yesterday."

Nearly 60,000 western Virginia homes and businesses were still blacked out Monday, Appalachian Power and Dominion Virginia Power reported. Utility officials in the Carolinas said more than 5,000 customers there were still without power Monday.

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