Hwy 31 Wildfire evacuee: ‘People were running for their lives’

Grand Strand

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – April 22, 2009 was a mild spring day along the Grand Strand. The temperature was 71 degrees with low humidity and winds gusting to 30 miles per hour.

Local dispatchers were first alerted to a fire on Woodlawn Drive at 12:02 p.m. that day. A debris burn had been extinguished by firefighters, but first responders say it quickly re-ignited and turned into one of South Carolina’s worst wildfires on record.

People living in the Barefoot area, like Lise Falcone, remember that day all too well. She could see the smoke from Conway, but didn’t think anything of it at first.

“I met some girlfriends after work and went over to a restaurant and saw cinders falling. I thought, ‘This is unusual – it’s in Conway!’ I think that’s when I realized it was something to look at,” she recalled.

She had heard rumblings about evacuations, but went to bed in her home Wednesday night after getting an update on the fire on the late news. Little did she know the winds would shift and the fire would charge the Barefoot Resort area overnight.

“Around 2 a.m., I heard sirens and a bit of commotion. So I got up and went to the back door and that’s when I could really see cinders falling at my back door,” she said.

She went to the front of her home when one of her neighbors shouted it was time to evacuate.

“My initial thought was, ‘Oh my goodness! What do I do now?’ I had my mom living here and I knew I had to get her out,” she said.

Falcone also had four dogs and a parrot to evacuate, as well. She loaded up her smaller dogs in her SUV, but her two large dogs refused to get in.

“They were afraid. They were older. So I was like, ‘OK – get them back in.’ Made a decision not to go up in the attic to get the travel cages for the birds, so i left them behind also. Shut the door and said, ‘OK God! They’re in your hands!” (I) said a little prayer and went,” she said, as she started to become emotional.

Falcone remembered what she described as the “weirdest feeling in the air” as she evacuated from her home in Barefoot early Thursday morning.

“It was just a red sky. I could see the glow all around and the cinders. It was a windy night. It was just a lot of smoke. It was really strange,” she remembered.

At that moment, Falcone became one of about 2,500 people evacauted from their homes in the area, as the flames spread. At that same moment, she became one of the hundreds who didn’t know if their home would be standing when it was all over with.

“My concern was how do I get my dogs out of there?” she said, as she recalled the next morning.

She spotted a North Myrtle Beach animal control officer in the staging area at the House of Blues. That animal control officer answered her prayers – he was the one who delivered the news that her home, indeed, was not burned and her animals were still alive.

Falcone and her husband, Joe, returned to the Barefoot community when it was deemed safe. What she saw, she says, was absolute destruction.

“I sat in the car and I’m looking around,” she said. “And I think, ‘I still have kitchen cabinets! They don’t have that. I have everything. My furniture’s still there. My pictures (are) still there. Everything’s still at my house. They have nothing. I mean, their houses were gone! The only thing left was maybe a washer and dryer or a car sitting there that’s burnt out. There’s very little.”

And while the destruction was far and wide – amounting to what the South Carolina Forestry Commission estimated to be nearly $50 million – there was one small miracle. There was no loss of life.

“It’s truly a miracle that people were just grabbing their keys and running for their lives and running from the flames,” Falcone explained.

What would later be named the “Highway 31 Fire” burned 19,130 acres and became the most destructive wildfire in South Carolina history, in terms of loss. The fire destroyed 76 homes, totaling $25 million dollars, and damaged 97 others. An estimated 4,000 people were evacuated at the height of the fire, according to the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

Officials say two tickets were issued to Marc Torchi, of Conway, who was burning household garbage at his residence in the Woodlawn subdivision. He was cited for failure to notify the forestry commission and allowing fire to spread to lands of another.

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