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State park: Lightning fire destroys nature center

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A nature center built in 2002 changed the emphasis at Huntington Beach State Park from a campground and beach access to educating the public about the salt marsh, maritime forest and the beach.

Nature center programs like “Feeding Frenzy” drew visitors to learn about habits and habitat of the park’s marine life, including alligators, stingrays, horseshoe crabs, turtles, birds, snakes and reptiles.

All that came to a shocking halt early Wednesday morning when the nature center burned, killing dozens of animals in displays. Midway Fire and Rescue Chief Doug Eggiman said the preliminary cause of the 2:30 a.m. blaze was lightning. The building

was engulfed in flame when firefighters arrived.

“The first arriving unit called back they could see the fire as they were crossing the causeway,” Eggiman said. Firefighters activated additional alarms to call for assistance from Murrells Inlet-Garden City and Georgetown City Fire Department. “Conditions were so bad,” Eggiman said, “ anything inside would have perished before we arrived.”

Firefighters spent about three hours bringing the fire under control. “We had three aerial ladder vehicles putting a large amount of water on the fire,” the chief said. Working with park manager Brenda Magers and her staff, officials from the state Department of Health and Environmental Services determined water runoff from the fire was not a hazard to the creek.

“We put a tremendous amount of water on the fire,” Eggiman said. A drone from Georgetown County Emergency Management was used to photograph the scene, and it showed natural grass and vegetation had trapped most of the pollution before it got to the water.

“The nature center was an iconic structure that helped interpret this natural beauty and significance,” said Dawn Dawson-House, director of corporate communications for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “Thousands of visitors came not only to learn more about Huntington Beach, but to find inspiration and make memories.”

The center, a 3,000 square-foot building sitting among the trees near the marsh on the north end of the park, had several aquariums filled with indigenous animals and displays about loggerhead turtles, alligators and birds. A large touch tank allowed visitors to feel and interact with the animals and a wet lab downstairs allowed children to study specimens collected on the property.

Van Stickles, the park’s manager from 1974 to 1979, returned for the nature center’s dedication in 2002 when he was director of parks for the entire state. He noted the shift from keeping the park clean for campers and visitors to the beach to education and management of the resource. “Now there’s been a big shift to education and management of the resource, which has been well taken by visitors. People can go there to learn about the salt marsh, the maritime forest, the beach,” he said at the dedication 14 years ago. “And it’s such a rich resource for history.”

Dawson-House said PRT will assess the damage and determine short-term as well as long-term goals. “Most of the park remains open, including the campground and the south end that includes the historic Atalaya home, park bathhouse, visitor center and trails into the maritime forest,” she said. “The north end, including a picnic shelter and beach access, and the boardwalk / wildlife observation decks, will re-open once the incident site is secured.

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