First, it was a hurricane. Thursday, it was a blizzard. Next comes a torrential rain, followed by hail.
The conditions created by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety at its Richburg test facility have confirmed what institute officials have said from the start: Man cannot control the weather, but he can control how the weather affects his house through the choice of materials, construction methods and maintenance.
Thursday's blizzard was not a conventional snowstorm.
It was the blizzard that jumps ahead of the wildfires, the shower of beautiful and deadly embers - embers that can smolder for hours and then ignite, destroying a house long after a wildfire has passed.
The blizzard was created by burning mulch at 700 degrees and then releasing the embers through giant tubes that resembled the exhaust stacks on diesel trucks. A gentle breeze from the test facility's fans sent a cloud of smoke, and then a shower of sparks, around a full-size house - think immense July Fourth sparkler.
In fewer than 10 minutes, portions of the house were ablaze. Vinyl guttering and siding melted, drooped and finally fell off the house. Mulch around the base of the house caught fire. Embers burned through wooden shingles. Areas with fiber-cement siding, fiberglass composition shingles and aluminum gutters did not burn.
"If there is one message you take away today, it is fire burns quickly; fear the embers," said Julie Rochman, president and chief executive officer for the institute.
Had it been uncontrolled, retired director of public safety for Alachua County, Fla., Will G. May, estimated it would have taken between six and eight firefighters with two to three fire trucks to extinguish the blaze. The firefighters would have had to fight the fire from outside and inside the house, including the attic. It would have been a time-consuming process.
And that's what is needed for just one house. Imagine a neighborhood of houses near the path of a wildfire.
"Firefighters can't protect all the houses. There are more houses than there are firefighters," said Jack Cohen, a research physical scientist with the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., of the U.S. Forest Service.
Cohen has spent more than 20 years studying wildfires. Fire is a natural act, clearing a forest of old growth and creating new habitat, he said. "Wild lands suffer from the lack of fires," he said.
"Fire is a process," he said. "And the forest is more resilient to fire than residential development."
"We are not victims but participants, and we have to look at our behaviors," Cohen continued. "Physics is on our side. ... It's not the big flames, but the little things that count."
The tests in Richburg are the first time Cohen and others have used a full-scale house. The conditions are about as close as you can come to an actual fire, he said. The only thing lacking was less humidity, which can increase the severity of a fire, he said.
Looking at the aftermath of the test, Cohen said, "All of the things that ignited are easily changed."
While wildfires in the west usually grab the headlines, they are as much a problem in South Carolina as elsewhere, said Bill Wiley, the Firewise Field Coordinator for the South Carolina Forest Commission. "We lose homes every year, one, two, or three at a time," he said.
A fire this week at the Charleston-Georgetown county line has consumed about 2,600 acres. State forestry officials say weather conditions should improve and prevent the fire from spreading along the Santee River.
Two years ago, a wildfire destroyed 76 homes, damaged 97 and caused $50 million in property losses in North Myrtle Beach. It was the state's worst wildfire.
"None of the houses burned from the top down," said Wiley, a resident of Chester. Some of the homes that did not burn were saved because residents soaked the mulch around them, he said.
Residents can reduce the possibility of fire damage by using rocks, hardwood or cypress mulch rather than pine straw, Wiley said. Residents also can use more succulent plants. Cedar, Leyland cypress and wax myrtle trees burn easily, he said. To reduce ember damage, clear gutters, and remove pine needles from roofs.
Thursday's fire was captured on numerous video cameras by the institute. Portions of the video will be used by the Savannah River National Laboratory to develop a computer program that residents can use to assess the threats from wildfires and give them a "to-do" list to reduce those threats.
"You can't fight the head of a wildfire; it will go where it wants to go," May said. "But you can see what the embers do." Thursday's demonstration will help change what firefighters look for when they arrive at a home fire near a wildfire, he said, and what firefighters do before they leave. They need to "take a better look," he said.
But the biggest change, Cohen, May and others said, is making the difference before the fire, using more fire-resistant materials, changing building codes and maintaining homes and landscapes.
See video from the demo below.