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State park: PRT will rebuild nature center destroyed by fire

Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Visitors to Huntington Beach State Park have returned to the wildlife observation decks and boardwalk overlooking the iconic marsh that escaped damage from a lightning fire that destroyed the park’s nature center last week.

A bright orange fence and yellow tape proclaim “Keep Out” from the site of the fire that claimed the lives of about 20 animals used for exhibits and displays and the 3,000-square foot center built in 2002. The rubble remains in a charred heap that is mostly hidden from view by trees.

“We’ve all had a couple days to recover and recoup and get our senses about us,” said park manager Brenda Magers. “We are full into the recovery process.” Officials with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism said the nature center would be rebuilt.

Magers said programs for visitors are primarily based on the natural resources of the park, and they will continue. She is looking for office space for nature center personnel to operate temporarily. Many people reacting online to the fire wanted to know how they could contribute to a new nature center. Magers said an account is being set up by Friends of Huntington Beach State Park to accept online donations. She said the account will be accessible through the Friends website. It will receive all donations, including those from the general public or from fundraisers and events.

“We are getting the whole spectrum of what you might expect,” Magers said. “After the shock and grief, we are getting people who want to put on gloves and clean up the site. What is there from the burned structure is considered hazardous waste. It’s not a matter of putting on gloves and boots and cleaning it up. We need donations. Every dollar will go directly to the nature center, whether it’s the building or exhibits.”

The nature center was built in 2002 at a cost of $880,000, according to Dawn Dawson-House, director of corporate communications for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. It was insured with the State Insurance Reserve Fund.

“The nature center was an iconic structure that helped interpret this natural beauty and significance,” she said, “Thousands of visitors came not only to learn more about Huntington Beach, but to find inspiration and make memories.”

The center had several aquariums filled with indigenous animals and displays about loggerhead turtles, alligators and birds. A large touch tank allowed visitors to interact with the animals and a wet lab downstairs allowed children to study specimens collected on the property. An inventory indicates the loss includes a sting ray, horseshoe crab, jellyfish, two hatchling alligators, nine turtles, five snakes, a glass lizard, frogs, a marbled salamander and an undetermined number of other types of marine life in aquariums.

“Our thoughts are with the broken-hearted volunteers and supporters of the nature center, where the fire spread so quickly that animals could not be saved,” said Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “With its prime location, passionate staff and close proximity to Brookgreen Gardens, it is one of the Grand Strand’s most historic and popular attractions. We are devastated by the loss of this state-owned treasure but relieved that no staff, volunteers or visitors were injured.”

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