THE GASTON FIRE
April 1, 1966. By mid-morning, firefighters knew it was going to be another long day in a long string of long days. At 10:00 a.m. the winds were clocked at 25 mph and the humidity had already dropped into the twenties. Fires were popping up everywhere; by noon there were more fires than firefighters.
South Carolina was in the middle of what would become known as the worst week in the state’s wildfire history. In the seven-day period of March 30-April 5, Forestry Commission firefighters would respond to literally hundreds of fires, ten of which ranged between 1,500-8,000 acres.
No part of the state was harder hit than the sand hills belt that cuts across the state from Aiken to Bennettsville. Right in the middle of this lies Lexington County and, on April 1, Lexington County faced a wildfire emergency of major proportions.
We would eventually call it the Gaston Fire, but when it started about 12:30 that Friday afternoon, it was just another fire on the waiting list. Every firefighter was already committed to other blazes and the Gaston Fire started building up steam.
Within an hour, almost a thousand acres of forest had been reduced to a smoking ruin.
What had started as a tiny spark had become a fearsome engine of destruction, a half-mile wide and running with the wind. Thirty-foot flames lashed ahead, lying almost parallel with the ground while burning embers rained down a half-mile in front of the blaze.
The first firefighters arrived about 2:45 p.m. They plowed, they pulled back, they plowed some more. Local volunteers with farm tractors assembled to assist. More firefighters arrived, but at 6:00 that evening a dry cold front blew through the midlands, whipping the flames into renewed fury.
The fire doubled in speed; in less than an hour it ran two and a quarter miles. The heat intensity during this evening run was estimated at eleven times that of a normal wildfire. At 9:30 p.m. a pillar of glowing embers rose 500 feet into the air, threatening the town of Gaston. And then, around 10:30 p.m., the massive blaze began to spawn thunderstorms. Trained weather observers first saw lightning, then witnessed a large cloud that hovered over the fire and appeared to draw flames up into its base.
No rain fell on the Gaston Fire that night, but Forestry Commission lore has it that fire-generated rainstorms put out fires in adjacent counties.
It took 25 Forestry Commission firefighters, 225 volunteers, and an eventual shower of rain to control the Gaston Fire a day and a half later. By that time 7,400 acres were burned, including 21 cabins on the Boy Scouts' Camp Barstow. All traces of the fire are now gone, but for old firefighters memories of that apocalyptic night still burn brightly.
THE CLEAR POND FIRE
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This is the largest forest fire ever recorded in South Carolina. It burned 30,000 acres in the area of Horry County known locally as the Buist Tract. The fire was about 14 miles long and varied in width from 6-7 miles. The burned area extended from near Wampee to the west side of US 501.
The fire started from an unattended campfire on April 10, 1976, at Clear Pond off SC 501 southeast of Conway. The persons responsible were never apprehended.
With relative humidity in the teens and pushed by 20-30 mph winds, the fire burned burned 11,000 acres by midnight.
On April 11, the smoke column was 10,000 feet high and extended 200 miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The smoke column was visible to weather satellites circling the earth. Ashes and burned debris from the convection column were scattered as far as 40 miles north of the fire scene.
During the afternoon of April 11, the wind shifted, creating a headfire 14 miles wide. Before the day was over, an additional 17,000 acres had been added to the fire’s toll.
A wind shift before daybreak April 12 turned the fire toward the southwest. Winds gusted up to 22 mph, and the relative humidity dropped to 14%. US 50l was closed as firefighters massed along the highway in an attempt to hold fire there. With burning embers raining down a half-mile ahead of the flames, the fire crossed the four-lane highway with ease.
Aerial tankers from the NC Forest Service arrived on the afternoon of April 12 bombarding hot spots and breakovers with liquid fire retardent.
The fire was contained about 1:00 pm on April 13, but was not declared under control until mop-up was completed on April 17. There were no fatalities or serious injuries associated with the fire, nor were any homes lost.
More than 65 Forestry Commission bulldozers and 113 Forestry Commission personnel from 28 counties fought the fire. About 200 others, including fire department personnel, forest industry firefighters, and civilian volunteers were directly involved in firefighting operations.
Emergency services personnel from law enforcement agencies, Civil Defense, DSS, Red Cross, etc. also participated in the effort. Local individuals, church groups, and businesses provided food and lodging for firefighters.
The area burned in the Clear Pond fire is one of the most volatile areas in South Carolina. In 1954, the Bombing Range fire in the same area burned more than ten thousand acres; in 1967, the Conway-Socastee fire burned more than six thousand acres. And in 2002, the Legends fire burned 1,648 acres.
THE RED FOX ROAD FIRE
MARCH , 1985
Camden area residents still remember the windy March day when wildfire paid a visit to Red Fox Road. Before the day was over, eight homes were in ruins and forests were scorched in a swath extending across 2,000 acres.
It was March 12, 1985. South Carolina was struggling with one of the worst extended wildfire seasons on record. And at 8:45 a.m., a wind-blown tree branch ripped into a power line along Kershaw County’s Highway 97, sparking what eventually became known as the Red Fox Road Fire.
Quick response by Forestry Commission bulldozers and the Camden City Fire Department stopped the blaze at about 12 acres. Soon thereafter, the bulldozers were called to another fire, leaving the fire department to monitor the burned area alone.
At 12:26 p.m., high winds whipped embers from the smoldering area into adjacent woodland, and the Red Fox Road Fire started its historic run. Winds were now 20-25 miles per hour; with most local Forestry Commission bulldozers working another blaze near Cassatt, the fire quickly raged out of control.
By early afternoon, winds were estimated as high as 40 miles per hour. The fire leaped across plowed firebreaks and paved roads with ease, running 5 ½ miles in just two hours.
Directly in its path was Red Fox Road, an exclusive neighborhood of homes and stables of fine horses.
Firefighters rushed to defend the homes. It was a frantic, desperate fight . . . men and machines against a roaring, mindless wall of fire. Within minutes, the battle for Red Fox Road was over and the fire had moved on. Eight homes were reduced to smoking rubble and two fine horses were dead.
The Red Fox Road Fire was finally controlled on the morning of March 13.
For information on the 2009 Highway 31 Fire, follow this link.