(AP Photo/Logan Wallace)
"It's still a very intensely burning fire -- very extreme fire weather," said Mike Bozzo, a state Forestry Commission commander.
Police banged on doors to awaken residents overnight as strong winds helped the blaze cut a four-mile-wide swath through forests and scrub toward the Barefoot Landing development, a complex of houses, condominiums and golf courses separated from the main route through Myrtle Beach by the Intracoastal Waterway.
"It was like something out of a movie," said Danielle Prater, 25, of Charlotte, N.C., who woke her aunt and uncle at 1:30 a.m. after seeing flames several feet high racing through a neighbor's back yard. "I ran and got them and we got out of there as fast as we could."
Officials said they hoped the waterway would act as a natural firebreak to protect more populated areas closer to the beach. State officials said as many as 70 homes had been destroyed and others were still threatened, though Bozzo said the blaze appeared to be drifting several miles north of the most densely packed tourist stretch of the region.
The governor declared a state of emergency for the county and five schools closed because of the dense smoke.
Garry Alderman, the county fire chief, described some homes as left with only "skeletal remains."
"I've never seen anything this bad," he said.
North Myrtle Beach mayor Marilyn Hatley said by midmorning the fire at the development had mostly died out, but police still stopped residents from returning to the homes there.
"This is a natural disaster," Hatley said.
About 2,500 people in a four-mile stretch on the western side of the waterway were told to leave their homes overnight, said North Myrtle Beach spokeswoman Nicole Aiello. Shelters were set up at North Myrtle Beach City Hall and the House of Blues, where about 200 people gathered, some waiting in their cars outside, as ash fell and the acrid smell of smoke was pervasive.
"What we have on is what we got away with," said Sherlene Pinnix, 63.
Nevertheless, visitors were teeing off at nearby golf courses and managers at the hotels that line the beach a few miles south of the blaze said they couldn't even smell smoke.
A cause of the fire, which started a day earlier in a wooded area west of the beach, had not been determined. The governor's office said more than 15,000 acres, or about 23 square miles, had been scorched by early Thursday morning.
A day earlier, flames jumped highways and walls of smoke engulfed tourist attractions as 30 mph gusts blew toward the ocean. Winds were expected to be weaker Thursday, but officials still feared the blaze could jump the waterway.
Besides the wind, Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner said crews were having trouble getting to the flames because of the dense vegetation and were using plows and tractors to cut paths to it.
Adding to the problem were heavily vegetated patches called Carolina Bays that caught fire and fueled the blaze.
The shallow, egg-shaped depressions pockmark the coast and range in size from a few to thousands of acres. The bays are densely filled with plant life and often have boggy bottoms where peat, if it catches fire, can burn for days or weeks. Tropical downpours are often needed to extinguish such fires, said state Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins.
"Once you get a fire in a bay, it's very, very hard to put out," he said.
The area is the anchor of the state's $16 billion annual tourist industry, drawing college students for its low-cost spring break and families who fill miles of budget beachfront hotels along the coast from Memorial through Labor Day. Tens of thousands of golfers visit each year, and some of the region's courses are among the most highly regarded in the nation.
Just off the coast, subdivisions and golf courses have been carved from forest and swamps over decades and the area remain prone to wildfires that spring up in the woods and scrub. Cartner said it was the worst blaze since some 30,000 acres, or 47 square miles, burned in 1976.
Local chamber of commerce officials said they were fielding calls from worried visitors but telling them Myrtle Beach was fine.
Phania Carson, a tourist from Macon, Ga., said he was cutting his trip one day short because of the smoke and potential for traffic. "I don't want to wait until the last minute and they tell us to evacuate. The traffic will just be that much heavier," he said as he filled the tank of his pickup truck.
Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in North Myrtle Beach, and Katrina A. Goggins, Jeffrey Collins and Jack Jones in Columbia contributed to this report.