State officials weigh in on wildfire disaster in Myrtle Beach area

State officials weigh in on wildfire disaster in Myrtle Beach area

26 June 2009

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A perfect storm of unusual weather conditions overwhelmed the capacity of responders to contain the April wildfire that destroyed 76 homes and damaged 97 others in upper Horry County, officials said at a review session here Thursday.

Still, their reviews of the catastrophe that caused an estimated $40 million in damage are not over, and they hope to find ways to improve response when it happens again, those attending said.

That could include improved communication between various agencies fighting future fires. Horry County in recent weeks has been critical of the state Foresty Commission’s response to the April wildfire, saying state firefighters did not want to cooperate with local officials.

State Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, said he believes communication problems between the agencies contributed to the home losses, and he wanted to know how that can be improved.

Darryl Jones, chief of forest protection for the commission, said agencies do have channels they can communicate on, but some people aren’t trained in how to use them and there are not enough of the radios with those channels available.

Gene Kodama, chief of the commission, said the interagency reviews will continue and he expects to have a report by midsummer.

The report likely will include some findings on what can be improved or what could have been done better in the Horry fires, even though weather conditions were largely to blame, said forestry agency spokesman Scott Hawkins.

“This fire behaved like none we’d ever seen,” Jones said.

It was a “perfect storm” of changing weather conditions, combustible material and wet ground that bogged down firefighting equipment, he said.

The fire was reported about 12:30 p.m. April 22, burning 150 acres near S.C. 90 and International Drive. Commission staff, charged by state law with fighting woods and brush fires in unincorporated areas and on state land, began to cut firebreaks behind nearby houses. One tractor bogged down while trying to cut a firebreak.

Meanwhile, the flames continued to spread as the agency tried to start a backfire that would drive the inferno back into the state-owned Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.

The flames pushed along so far and fast that by 5 p.m. they were almost to S.C. 31, Jones said. It took some time to get the firefighting equipment around to the new front line and attempt to build a backfire at the east end of the burning sector.

Firefighters on the scene expected the usual evening calming of the fire, when winds die down and humidity rises. But that didn’t happen. Contrary to what was predicted by the U.S. Weather Service, the wind shifted so hard and fast about 9 p.m. that two men were trapped and had to use their portable emergency shelters to survive. Other crews had to retreat to plowed-out safety areas, Jones said.

About 2 a.m. April 23, the wind shifted again to a speed of 50 to 60 miles per hour, creating flames 270 feet high that crossed into Barefoot Resort.

But it wasn’t the wall of flames that engulfed the houses in the development, Jones said. They were consumed by embers, some the size of logs, being borne ahead of the flames on the high winds. Those embers caught landscape material and similar combustibles on fire and burned the adjacent houses, Jones said.

The review session was called by state Rep. Jeff Duncan, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He said he wants to find out if state agencies that manage forest land are working together to prevent and respond to such fires, and what legislators can do to help. Almost 20 local, state and federal agencies responded, Jones said.

Lawmakers were not placing blame, Duncan said, but agencies need to “learn from the Horry County fire.”

Edge represents the area most affected by the wildfire. He said residents hope to learn and find a way to prevent it from occurring again.

“The neighborhood is going to be there,” but so is the forest, Edge said.

Jones said one problem is that houses have been built up to the forest edge. Additionally, the preserve and adjacent areas have a long history of fires but in the past there were few buildings to worry about.

North coastal forest is prone to burning because of the type of vegetation that “can burn very explosively” and that some firefighters call “gasoline bushes,” Jones said.

Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, said he is concerned that the preserve and similar properties are not being burned off enough to keep the combustibles under control, partly because of smoke complaints from residents. People need an education campaign about the benefits of controlled burns, he said.

“Smoke’s one thing, but losing your home is a whole other story,” Hardwick said.

Breck Carmichael, deputy chief of the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages the preserve, said it is burned as much as staff and funds allow. The areas that were burned on purpose in recent years did help control the wildfire because they did not burn as fast and hot as parts that had not been part of those controlled burns, he said. DNR is reviewing its controlled burn practices to see if they can be improved to prevent such wildfires, Carmichael said.

With the forest’s history of fires, residents can expect another one in eight years if not sooner, and they and the responding agencies should prepare for it, Hardwick said.

Edge said he did not get all his questions answered at Thursday’s session, but it was a good start.

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