NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - South Carolina firefighters continued Saturday to snuff out the hotspots of a wildfire smoldering near the coast for four days and officials said the blaze that once came perilously close to the state's tourist mecca appeared to be mostly contained.
After scorching more than 30 square miles and demolishing scores of homes, the fire remained 85 percent under control through the day, said authorities who were heartened by a forecast of calming winds and high humidity - but still no rain - into Sunday.
"That's very encouraging," said Scott Hawkins, a spokesman for the state Forestry Commission. "But until it's 100 percent contained, we won't rest easy no matter how positive things are."
Officials said smoldering ashes and hot spots fanned earlier in the week by 30 mph gusts remained unpredictable, and some inland homes along the containment line's edge remained a worry.
Rain is "the only thing that's going to put it completely out. It could take months," said Holly Welch, a commission spokeswoman.
In all, the fire demolished more than 70 homes and damaged 100 others since it started Wednesday - roaring within a couple of miles of the main tourist strip that stretches south through Myrtle Beach. No injuries have been reported.
Earlier Saturday, homeowners picked through the rubble of destroyed houses at the golf course subdivision hardest hit by the blaze.
"It's stuff that can be replaced. But it's something we loved," said Ginny Paradise, 60, of Cleveland, who lost her vacation home where she planned to retire. Like others who live at the Barefoot Resort, she said she plans to rebuild.
Joe Gosiewski and wife Nancy moved into their home last year from Delaware. They were left with only the Adirondack chairs he'd built two weeks ago, and a coffee mug with the slogan "Life is Good."
"Everything we own is here. There's nothing. We got out with our wallets," said Gosiewski, 55, a former insurance adjuster whose brother's home also was demolished.
"We want to rebuild. We won't let a fire chase us away," he said, though he worries about getting a mortgage in the down economy.
Half a mile away, state workers and fire crews knocked down trees, plowed firebreaks and doused hotspots to keep the fire contained. Officials also reopened major roads near the charred areas and slightly downgraded the total acres burned to 19,500. In one area, they squelched a fire that had burned underground, beneath a firebreak, and flared up on the other side.
Meanwhile, state officials stuck by their contention that the blaze sparked from the smoldering remains of a yard fire set a week earlier by the resident in Conway, 10 miles from Barefoot Resort. Horry County firefighters responded twice to that small, April 18 blaze.
Hawkins reiterated Saturday that state officials believe the fire started four days after Marc Torchi's yard fire rekindled. But he urged restraint in putting blame on another agency.
"Our concern now is putting the fire out. Later on we can take a look at the time line. There will be a lot of pressure on Horry County later on," he said.
Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Cartner continued to insist the yard fire to which his agency responded was not what caused the wildfire. "The yard fire taking place on Saturday is not associated with the one that took place Wednesday, even though they came from the same place. We're treating those two separate," he said.
Torchi's wife, Megan Brogan, said Saturday that her family had been threatened since officials said they would fine him for unlawfully burning the pine straw and leaves in his yard. No criminal charge has been filed.
Brogan said she felt a little better that people were learning through news reports that county firefighters had been called to their home. "Everything seems to be getting back to normal," she said.
Experts said "rekindles," or re-ignitions of a fire after responders leave an area, can take place several days later from embers that manage to smolder even in damp conditions.