One of the greatest threats to homes in the South during wildfire season is pine straw _ a cheap, easy way to spruce up yards and flowerbeds _ that can burn so hot it melts the vinyl siding off houses.
The dry, tar-laden straw is so ubiquitous in Southern landscaping that even South Carolina's wildfire-fighting forestry agency makes $1 million a year selling pine straw from the state forests. Yet it fueled one of the most destructive wildfires in state history in 2009, and North Carolina's capital city has outlawed its use in apartment and townhouse landscaping.
Officials in South Carolina say pine straw shouldn't touch buildings if it is used. Since the 2009 fire, eight communities have joined the state Forestry Commission's Firewise program that shows communities how to protect themselves from fire hazards, bringing the total to 13, said Mike Bozzo, the commission's incident commander for the 2009 fire and head of the Firewise program. He said he did not know of any bans on the straw in the state.
Ursula Ashby knows how fast and hot the straw can burn. She and her husband were just settling into their Myrtle Beach home in 2009 when the South Carolina fire burned 19,000 acres and 170 homes _ including theirs. It had a brick front, but three sides had vinyl siding that were quickly melted by the pine straw in flowerbeds touching the house. Most of the homes still standing had rock, not straw, against the house, Ashby said.
"The pine straw acted as an accelerant to really implode the house," she said. "The fire was so hot and intense."
One of the newest members of the Firewise program is Briarcliff Acres _ a small town of about 250 residents between North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach. It's just across U.S. Highway 17 from the Barefoot Resort area that burned in 2009.
Robert Hock, the volunteer emergency management supervisor for the town, said the town has not banned the use of pine straw in flowerbeds, though officials strongly recommend not using it.
"Since that time, there's very little pine straw around and if it is, it isn't close to the house," Hock said. Instead, people are using hardwoods, like cypress mulch. Fire experts say such wood chips retain moisture better than pine straw and don't burn as easily. They also don't contain the pine tar that makes the straw burn so hot.
On Thursday, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety demonstrated how different roofing materials perform under wildfire conditions at its South Carolina laboratory. Pine straw was among the materials used to blow embers onto roofs.
In Raleigh, most are complying with the year-old ban, Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said. He said his department and others began pushing for such an ordinance after a 2006 fire that burned 35 homes. A fire in March 2010 destroyed seven homes in a subdivision in northeast Raleigh.
"I think they've seen over the last couple of years the destructive power of something that really looks nice, it's very cheap, it does serve a purpose and it's a large industry in North Carolina," McGrath said.
The pine straw is easy to come by. The native pines with needles several inches long grow abundantly in forests around the Southeast. It's the cheapest of common mulch materials _ about $5 to cover 25 square feet with two inches of straw compared with $7.50 for similar coverage with wood chips or bark, said Robin Klein, general manager of Woodley's Garden Supply Columbia.
Rocks and recycled tires made to look like mulch are five to seven times as expensive, but they tend to last longer. However, these ground covers do little to provide heat relief for plant roots during the scorching South Carolina summers and insurance industry experts warn that rocks can do a lot of damage in hurricane-prone areas.
The Myrtle Beach wildfire started in a geological formation known as a Carolina Bay. Floored with a thatch of debris from dead plants and filled with waxy plants dubbed "gasoline bushes," these bays that are unique to the Carolinas can harbor a fire underground, where it can smolder undetected. Firefighters were called to areas days after they thought blazes had been put out only to find them burning anew. Dry air and high winds helped fan the flames.
But it wasn't until the fire's own intensity created a column of air that blew sparks up to a mile away that things truly got out of hand.
"It wasn't actually the fire rolling through the neighborhood. It was embers that were being picked up, dropping into pine straw beds next to houses," Bozzo said.
On average, wildfires burn 30,000 acres annually in South Carolina and about 5.3 million acres nationwide. In the largest single blaze in South Carolina, 30,000 acres burned in 1976, but no homes were destroyed. Just this week, the state Forestry Commission has been called to dozens of fires, some of which are contained but not controlled.
Wildfire season also is starting up elsewhere. Crews were working Friday to contain a wildfire that started at a Marine Corps training range at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. Another in southeast Georgia had destroyed at least 10 homes.