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Fire officials see right ingredients for wildfires

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The relationship between large forested tracts and residential developments makes Waccamaw Neck vulnerable to an incident like the wildfire that devoured more than 20,000 acres in Horry County last week, according to officials.

Spreading from pine forests to nearby residential developments, the wildfire caused property damages estimated at more than $25 million.

“We’re just as susceptible as they were,” said Bob Beebe, a spokesman for Midway Fire and Rescue. “In a lot of places, the houses back right up to the forest line.”

Though most people think of wildfires as “a west coast thing,” they happen all the time in South Carolina — though usually not to the same extent, said Darryl Jones, forest protection chief with the S.C. Forestry Commission.

The commission is responsible for protecting 13.6 million acres from wildfire. Commission firefighters respond to an average of 4,000 to 6,000 wildland fires every year, more than most western states.

“Most people don’t think about it, but it happens here a lot more often here than people realize or would expect,” Jones said.

The reason is urban sprawl.

As the boundaries between rural and urban areas continue to blur, “lives and property will be threatened as never before,” according to the commission’s Web site.

Midway firefighters are trained and have a plan in place to deal with wildfires, but assisting in Horry County last week really brought home how intense such an event can be and how quickly it can devastate.

“This is something we’ve been thinking about all along, because of the big area we have, but we haven’t — knock on wood — had anything like that here yet,” Beebe said. “We plan and talk about the what ifs, but you can never be fully ready for something like that. It’s a whole different kind of firefighting.”

Of wildfires in South Carolina, 40 percent to 45 percent are a result of escaped backyard fires, Jones said.

“People are cleaning their yards and burning brush and it gets away from them,” he said. “We hear it time and time again. Somebody went in the house for just a minute or they turned their back and it escaped.”

The commission is still investigating. The man has not been cited with causing the wildfire.

Investigators traced the fire in Horry County to the yard of a Conway man who was burning household garbage on April 18. It was suspected the fire reignited on April 22, investigators said Friday.

When residents burn brush, they should keep a close eye on the fires and be sure to create firebreaks first, Jones said.

To reduce the possibility of having a major wildfire, land owners perform “prescribed burns” on a regular basis to eliminate brush and debris from forest floors.

“In a place that hasn’t burned in 50 or 100 years, all the pine needles and limbs build up and provide fuel for a wildfire,” Jones explained.

Prescribed burns are done only in certain weather conditions to keep the fire from getting out of control and direct smoke away from nearby residents. The fires are low in intensity, so they eliminate brush, but don’t damage trees.

“It’s a very fickle process,” said Bob Jewell, president and CEO of Brookgreen Gardens.

Brookgreen has about 3,000 forested acres that border Wachesaw Plantation and The Reserve.

Prescribed burns imitate a function historically performed by nature.

“Before the area was populated, most fires were lit by lightning and would burn for weeks at a time,” Jones said.

“If you don’t burn enough and fuel builds up, then you add in low humidity and that’s when fires become more intense and start jumping” across highways and waterways, Jones added.

Prescribed burns can also improve wildlife habitats for some species and control certain plant diseases.

A problem with prescribed burns, Jones said, is that a lot of people, especially those not used to living around forested areas, don’t understand what prescribed burns are and why they are needed.

“It confuses people when we’re seen out on the side of the road lighting fires,” Jones said.

“A lot of people don’t understand that not all fire is bad fire.”

At Prince George, the University of South Carolina is responsible for managing the forested land. They started talking in January about a need to bulldoze firebreaks, do a prescribed burn and thin out some of the pine trees.

The Horry County fire “certainly heightened our awareness” of the necessity of those actions and “the fact that we need to be good stewards not only to the land, but also the property owners down there,” said Jerry Odom, executive director of university foundations.

For people with homes near forested areas, the state Forestry Commission has a program that teaches how to protect communities from wildfire. Tips include pushing brush away from homes, using mulch instead of pine straw for landscaping and ensuring there is enough space between the home and the treeline for firefighters to bring trucks in to fight a wildfire.

Only about four communities in the state participate in the program now.

For communities interested in becoming “firewise,” speakers from the are available to give workshops.

To learn more about the Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Prevention program, visit www.state.sc.us/forest/nfpacc.htm.

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