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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

Alderman said he doesn’t think the funding cuts will impact the agency’s ability to handle a forest fire of the same magnitude in the future.

“The million-dollar cut has nothing to do with the personnel side. We just have to watch our overtime to make sure we don’t go over. It doesn’t cut our manpower at all,” he said.

In fact, Horry County officials obtained a grant that boosted their ranks by 18 firefighters this year, Alderman said. Horry County has more than 300 paid firefighters and more than 200 volunteers who staff 46 fire stations.

One complication that hindered firefighting in April involved emergency department radio systems. State forestry officials use a different system than county firefighters, so keeping track of personnel during the wildfire often meant stopping vehicles as officials passed by each other for updates.

Improving inter-agency communication strategies was recommended in the forestry commission’s Highway 31 Fire After-Action Report, which contained 76 recommendations to improve response to such a disaster in the future. The report also recommended holding annual emergency exercises with multiple agencies around the state to become familiar with each other’s assets and capabilities.

Budget cuts at the S.C. Forestry Commission mean no money for new equipment, so Alderman plans to pair an Horry County fire officer with forestry personnel in case of another wildfire.

The two agencies also plan to hold joint exercises to familiarize themselves with the abilities and tools of each department.

“The way the tax dollar is in the state, their funds are getting cut more and more,” Alderman said. “We need to be able to work with them through these exercises to find out some of their techniques of what they do.”

Another change involves posting red flags outside Horry County fire stations when conditions are not ideal for outdoor burning, Alderman said. But that wouldn’t have helped when the wildfire erupted. April 22, 2009, was not a red flag day, he said.

Horry County Public Safety officials also are researching a possible partnership with the forestry commission to keep an aerial firefighting crew on retainer.

Horry County, along with about five other local fire departments, watched a demonstration last week from an aerial team of helicopters and crop dusting planes.

The idea of the aerial support isn’t to extinguish the flames. Instead, the helicopter scouts the area and provides guidance on the best place for the dusting planes to drop a fire line of water treated with foam that helps it soak into the ground, or of fire retardant that would help create a fire line to prevent the fires from spreading.

Horry County Councilman Al Allen, who is a subcontractor for the company that performed the demonstration, raised concerns after last year’s wildfires over local control of the emergency command centers.

The planes had been offered to the Forestry Commission to help with the fires, but the offer was not accepted, Allen said last May. S.C. Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters helped out on the third and fourth days of the wildfire, but it takes an order from the governor to deploy those resources.

County Public Safety Director Paul Whitten said ideally the local air service now being studied would be a partnership with the forestry commission and other local fire agencies. The contract would probably be a contingency service with a per-use fee and an annual retainer. Whitten said he would research grants and other alternative or shared funding scenarios.

Several local cities, as well as the county, hastened their efforts to create debris burning and other controlled burn regulations. Conway, Horry County and North Myrtle Beach all passed burning regulations after last year’s wildfire, but representatives from all three said the efforts were under way before the wildfire.

“The ordinance is something I think was needed,” Alderman said of Horry County’s new rules. “I can come in and say there can be no burning on a red flag day, and I can ask for a ban on burning when our resources are pressed to the limit if there’s another large event going on like the April wildfires.”

Paul Watts, fire chief with the forestry commission, said debris burns that get out of control, such as the one that sparked the Horry County blaze, cause the highest percentage (44 percent) of fire calls to the organization – higher than lightning, arson and cigarettes.

The commission doesn’t advise municipalities on burning bans other than to make sure its agents have the right to conduct controlled burns and set backfires, he said.

Even with all the changes and planning by fire and government agencies, Webster said residents must play a role too, by planning in advance how they will react in case of an emergency such as a wildfire or hurricane. Prepare an emergency kit in advance that’s easy to grab quickly, and talk with family members about a plan for where to meet if ordered to evacuate.

“People need to be responsible for themselves; don’t wait. If you have an inkling of an idea there is a problem, take action,” Webster said. “Overall, the fact that we had that much damage and that much tragedy, thank goodness we didn’t have loss of life. There’s always things you can do better.”


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