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Wildfire Sparks Change In Fire Screw Response Tactics

Wildfire Sparks Change In Fire Screw Response Tactics

County Rescue personnel gathered at the Allens Fire Department last week and traveled a short distance to watch an aerial firefighting demonstration as a possible addition to the department [Horry County Fire Department]

The Sun News via YellowBrix

April 18, 2010

HORRY COUNTY, SC – Garry Alderman was heading onto an overpass at S.C. 31 en route to a fire call a year ago this week when he spotted embers flying overhead, “like fireflies.”

The Horry County Fire Rescue chief knew then that this was no routine emergency response. The blaze racing toward S.C. 22 would eventually be labeled the most destructive in S.C. history.

“Those embers flew way over the fire,” said Alderman. “It wasn’t burning just on the other side of 22. It was burning a half mile forward.”

The fire that began along S.C. 31 in April 2009 blackened more than 19,000 acres, destroyed 76 houses, damaged 97 additional homes and caused more than $25 million in damage to homes and $17 million to timber.

The hardest hit neighborhood was North Myrtle Beach’s Barefoot Resort community where 69 homes were destroyed. Despite the intensity and speed of the wind-driven flames, no one was injured.

In the year since the pre-dawn blaze chased residents from homes – in some cases just moments before the homes were engulfed in flames – emergency and fire officials have implemented new plans and beefed up training.

Other changes include stricter burning bans, more communication between S.C. Forestry officials and Horry County firefighters, and a phone bank for residents seeking information. The changes are under way despite budget cuts that have plagued all government agencies.

“We don’t want to see it again. It’s the third big one I’ve seen that’s over 1,000 acres. This one was unbelievable,” Alderman said. “It was out of our control. We weren’t controlling that fire. Mother Nature was controlling that fire. It was something that we could have never predicted.”

The area of the wildfire was also the site of the state’s largest wildfire, which occurred 20 years ago. It is home to pine trees and other native vegetation that provides fuel for fires during dry conditions.

The start of the 2009 wildfire was traced to an April 18 outdoor debris burn in the backyard of a Conway-area man, Marc Torchi. He was fined in October for allowing fire to spread to another’s land.

The underbrush was so thick in some areas of the wildfire that crews could not reach the fire, Alderman said.

The area is made up of dense forest that includes the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, where native plants and longleaf pine trees flourish. Pine needles in the preserve and those used as landscaping around the homes further fed the flames, adding to their intensity and driving them forward.

“Forestry’s goal was to try and control the wildfire,” Alderman said. "Our goal was to protect the homes that the wildfire was threatening, and I think we did an outstanding job. Nobody got hurt, and that’s amazing when you look at it.

“When I went through there that night … I couldn’t believe it. I thought there’s got to be dead people in there. There were homes that were burned and homes starting to burn. … I thought somebody would have died and nobody died,” he said. “That’s a miracle and that’s great. None of my guys got hurt. None of the other fire department people got hurt.”

A final report on the fire, which was declared controlled on May 20, said it cost state and local agencies a total of $1.5 million to battle the blaze.

“A disaster is a disaster and how it affects you as an individual is how bad the disaster is,” said Randy Webster, Horry County’s Emergency Management director. “Everybody needs to realize that area is going to burn again. It has burnt historically. Big fires, little fires and it will do it again. … This is a huge risk or threat that we have out there. It may burn the other direction next time or it may burn in a different way. There are people who live out there, and they need to understand ‘What am I going to do?’”

With the downturn in the economy, Horry County Fire Rescue is facing a more than $1 million deficit in tax revenue in its nearly $16.5 million budget, but local and state officials say such cuts shouldn’t hamper future firefighting efforts.

County Budget Director Westley Sawyer said the county expects to make those cuts by purchasing new trucks and equipment only on a need basis, as well as possibly closing several volunteer fire stations temporarily.

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