That’s what two of the state’s top forest experts said of the sprawling subdivisions west of Myrtle Beach where one of the largest wildfires in state history destroyed or damaged some 170 homes this week and continues to threaten hundreds more.
Just 20 years ago, pine plantations covered much of the land between Myrtle Beach and Conway, and the timber and paper companies that once owned them conducted regular controlled burns to rid the forests of the underbrush that could fuel potentially catastrophic wildfires, such as the current one.
Richard Porcher, a botanist, author and professor emeritus of biology at The Citadel, said that without periodic controlled burns, pine forests build up a tremendous amount of fuel and a catastrophic wildfire can erupt. It’s the way they’ve been throughout history, long before humans built into the forests, he said.
The problem, Porcher said, is that “those people just won’t listen,” and build right up to the edge of the forest and won’t allow controlled burns near their homes because of the smoke. All it takes, he said, is five or so years for a pine forest to build up the fuel necessary for out-of-control fires. “They built in harm’s way.”
Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the state Forestry Commission, agreed with Porcher, except he characterizes the problem area as “the wildland/ urban interface.” Everybody wants to get to the woods, he said, but they don’t want some of the inconveniences that go with it such as controlled burning.
He said some of the land where the fire burned had been subject to controlled fires in recent years, but far too little to stop the fire from raging, as it has, across some 20,000 acres.
Jones said the Forestry Commission also has had difficulty persuading developers and homeowners in forest areas to build with more fire-resistant material and landscape in a way to keep flames away from houses and provide firefighters with a “defensible space” from which they can safely battle forest fires and escape if necessary. What firefighters need, he said, is open space with adequate access for heavy equipment.
Many of the homes in these subdivisions are built so close together that firefighting vehicles essentially face a wall of homes they can’t get through.
In addition, many of these homes were built in forestlands that have not been burned with a controlled fire for years, Jones said. And the only effective way to prevent build-up of underbrush and debris in these vast woods is through controlled burns. Fueling the problem is some of the vegetation that grows in the underbrush wax myrtle and holly. Both have waxy leaves that provide volatile, hot-burning fuel, kind of like gasoline, Jones said.