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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Topsail Island fire arguably largest ever in Surf City, still no cause found as insurance companies investigate

The Atkinson Road fire on Topsail Island in Surf City caused an estimated $5 million in damages. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wilton C Wescott)
The Atkinson Road fire on Topsail Island in Surf City caused an estimated $5- to $8-million in damages. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wilton C. Wescott)

Total damages are estimated between $5 to $8 million from what Surf City’s fire chief said was likely the largest fire in the town’s history. He also addressed some residents’ concerns of water supply issues and narrow house setbacks.

SURF CITY — Surf City Fire Chief Allen Wilson said last month’s fire that destroyed seven homes on Atkinson Road was arguably the largest fire in Surf City’s history, one that grew quickly due to modern construction materials and the close proximity of the homes to each other.

Wilson said a call was dispatched from the town’s fire station on Topsail Island at 5:53 p.m. on Sunday, September 30, and the first engine truck arrived at 5:59 p.m. A national benchmark established by the National Fire Protection Agency for the time between dispatch and when the first truck arrives on the scene is 5 minutes and 20 seconds.

The station is just over two miles away from a home located at 153 Atkinson Road, where it is believed the fire started. Wilson estimated total damages at $5 million, taking into account home tax values, building cleanup and replacement costs, lost contents, and vehicle and infrastructure damages. Pender County Fire Marshal Tommy Batson, however, estimated higher total damages — $8 million.

Seven homes were destroyed along with one structure damaged, four boats damaged, three golf carts destroyed, and two vehicles destroyed, according to Watson.

When the first engine truck arrived, followed by a truck from the town’s mainland station a minute later, Wilson said three homes were already burning, with some speculation that a fourth had also caught on fire by that time.

“Our guys who arrived there first could see the actual road itself was burning,” Wilson said. “The asphalt was off-gassing and that gas was igniting.”

Approximately 40 to 45 personnel from the island’s three towns’ fire departments ultimately responded to the call, with two crews from Pender EMS & Fire also coming to the scene. Those fighting the fire represented a combination of career firefighters — 12 who were on the job that night and others off-duty personnel — and volunteer firefighters.

“It takes a lot of people to work a scene like that,” Wilson said. “If that fire would have happened in a major metropolitan area, they would have dumped 100 career firefighters on that scene in a matter of minutes. And we have very limited manpower and staffing but were able to get the job done.”

A joint investigation between the county’s fire marshal office, Surf City Fire Department, ATF, SBI, and the state’s Department of Insurance did not reveal a source of the fire, according to Wilson. But although the investigation is complete, he said plenty of evidence still exists to determine where the fire started as several insurance companies begin their own investigations.

Batson said his office is overseeing the joint investigation, and due to the size of the fire and the number of homes and vehicles destroyed or damaged, the report has not yet been completed.

He said that one home destroyed was a family’s permanent residence while the remaining six were secondary homes. Crews were able to prevent the fire from spreading southeast toward South Shore Drive, he said, while the fire continued to spread in the opposite direction towards the Intracoastal Waterway.

Water supply and house setbacks

Wilson said the fire was clearly larger than an early 2013 fire that destroyed a building at Tiffany’s Motel and a nearby home, which was largely considered the largest fire to occur in the town’s history.

Although it was unusual for his department to respond to a fire that grew as quickly as it did, Wilson said it wasn’t surprising considering modern construction materials and furnishings — glues and synthetics, veneers over particle board, lightweight building materials, and furniture no longer made of solid wood like oak and mahogany.

“Not only do they burn faster, but they burn hotter,” Wilson said. “So it increases the fire growth dramatically compared to a house that was built 20 years ago.”

Wilson also addressed some complaints he had heard since last month’s fire — that water supply was an issue and that the homes were not set back far enough from the road to allow trucks to pass by and fight the fire from the Intracoastal Waterway-side of the fire.

The homes are supplied by a “dead-end water line” that did reduce the water volume his trucks could use that night, according to Wilson, but a loop system that would provide more water is not possible on a dead-end road.

So it was a dead-end water line, which does reduce some of the volume that you can get out of a water system,” Wilson said. “However, with the system that we had and the process that we were using, we did not have any water issues. We never ran out of water; we never lost water.”

Wilson also addressed speculation that the front side of the homes were only 15 to 20 feet from Atkinson Road, not enough space for fire trucks to safely pass. He said that although it “definitely provided us with a lot of limitations,” because the wind was blowing the flames and smoke northeast across the road, a 40-foot setback would have still provided the same limitations.

“While the setback is narrow — it definitely provided that limitation — but in that particular situation even a larger setback probably wouldn’t have made any difference because the wind was blowing the fire directly across the road,” Wilson said.

The chief also wanted residents to understand more clearly the effort that was required of the fire crews that evening, one that prevented any injuries or deaths.

“Our folks did a phenomenal job,” Wilson said. “They were faced with an impossible situation, especially with whatever the delay in notification was, to arrive in a situation where you already have three houses on fire. That is something that you don’t see every day. So the quick action of our folks truly made a difference in being able to get through that incident without anybody getting hurt, without anybody getting killed. To me, that right there is a testament to our guys’ capabilities and their knowledge, skills and abilities to work a fire.”

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

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