A strong afternoon thunderstorm Wednesday forced the Beaufort Fire Department to call in off-duty firefighters and put a reserve fire engine into service as firefighters scurried all over Beaufort and Port Royal on reports of lightning strikes.
Firefighters were called to the 1300 block of Charles Street just after 3 p.m. after a resident called 911 to report heavy smoke coming from a neighbor's home, said Lt. Dan Byrne, Beaufort Fire Department spokesman.
Byrne said fire investigators believe lightning struck a shed that housed the home's water heater, a structure that was connected to the home.
"When we arrived, there was heavy smoke at the rear of the home, and upon entering the shed, we found it fully involved with fire," Byrne said.
Firefighters cautiously tended to the blaze after a military crate was found in the shed with markings indicating it contained heavy explosives. The contents of the crate turned out to be a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations, and the fire was extinguished.
No injuries were reported. Byrne said there was extensive damage to the shed but minimal damage to the home itself, thanks to the neighbor's quick thinking.
"We were able to put the fire out before it got into the roof," Byrne said. "They were lucky that the neighbor was home."
About 20 minutes into the call on Charles Street, Beaufort County Dispatch sent Beaufort firefighters to four other reports of possible structure fires caused by lightning strikes in Beaufort and Port Royal, including one on 9th Street in Port Royal, where a strike started a fire inside the wall of a home.
Byrne said the house sustained moderate damage because firefighters had to break a window and rip out a windowsill to extinguish the fire. A tarp was placed over the window by firefighters before leaving the scene, he said.
As they departed, firefighters again were dispatched to a weather-related call for help.
Byrne said a large tree fell across Paris Avenue in Port Royal, taking a power line with it and tearing the lines from the side of a nearby home. There were no signs of a fire inside the home, and power was secured, he said.
While Mother Nature was giving Beaufort firefighters all they could handle, other northern Beaufort County departments were spared an onslaught of calls related to severe weather.
Spokesmen for the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District and the Burton Fire District said their firefighters saw limited action during Wednesday's storms.
However, the Town Of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division responded to 13 weather-related calls between 4 and 5:10 p.m., according to data provided by spokeswoman Joheida Fister.
"They were running to one right after another," she said.
Those calls included six confirmed lightning strikes, according to the data. One strike hit a town hall building. The others hit homes and a tree, Fister wrote in an e-mail.
Reporter Renee Dudley contributed to this report.