Hearings focus on improving response to wildfires

Hearings focus on improving response to wildfires

1 July 2009

published by www.northmyrtlebeachonline.com

SC, USA — Last week the SC House Agriculture and Natural Resource committee met, chaired by Jeff Duncan. The main subject they addressed was the Highway 31 Wildfire. Because of the nature of the topic, Duncan invited our local representative Tracy Edge and the rest of the Horry County Delegation to be a part of the hearing.

The two hour committee hearing was designed to complement local reviews of actions taken during the wildfire. “Up to now the city of North Myrtle Beach has conducted a review. Horry County has appeared to have conducted some type of review. This [hearing] was a review by state agencies as to how they reacted and how they could they improve responses in the future,” said Edge.

Locally, William Bailey, North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Director, was in attendance.

The committee heard from representatives from the SC Forestry Service, Department of Natural Resources, Emergency Preparedness and the SC National Guard. The committee reviewed the chronology of events related to the movement of the fire, how Forestry tried to combat the fire and the related weather and topographic conditions that enhanced the movement of the fire.

After evaluation of the actions of the departments, budgetary needs for Forestry was discussed – what they need in the future. What type of modified protocols could be put in place and communication enhancements that would be helpful in the future.

“This was something new to [the SC] Forestry [Service] and to the City [of North Myrtle Beach]. Forestry has not had a lot of experience fighting a fire near urbanized areas and the City was not used to being concerned with a forest fire right next to the city. So there was a lot of discussion about how communication could be improved between three totally different jurisdictions – whether it was enhanced radio equipment or the need to have someone from the City or other jurisdictions at the Forestry Commission command center,” Edge observed.

In recent articles in the local media, Horry County officials have gone on record saying thTracy_Edge_070109ey want to be in charge. “They don’t have any equipment to fight a fire like that so I don’t think that is a workable solution. Forestry exists to fight a forest fire. They don’t exist to fight structure fires, although they can. Their equipment, whether it is bulldozers or helicopters are designed to put out forest fires,” commented Edge.

During the hearing, the SC Forestry Commission expressed concern about their equipment, commenting that their equipment is old and needs replacing. “We don’t need it to break down in the next big fire like this,” remarked Edge.

Inter-jurisdictional communication was a topic that took a great deal of time in the hearing. Edge said, “We haven’t had a big fire with so many jurisdictions involved that need to communicate.”

The Committee directed the SC Forestry Service to make recommendations as to how to improve the command center and make information more readily available and better disseminated to all involved jurisdictions. “It is extremely important that the SC Forestry Commission come up with a way that all involved jurisdictions be on the same page with DNR and other jurisdictions. The representatives from the City of North Myrtle Beach seemed to be on board with that,” stated Edge.

When asked whether a single command would have solved a lot of the problems, Edge told us that he did not believe centralization of command was necessarily an option. “I don’t see the Forestry service directing city assets but instead, if there is a fire in the same area, the City would have someone stationed at the command center and have a fresh look with their own eyes at information coming in without relying on information being relayed to them and be able to make their own determinations.”

Some members of the committee observed that the SC Forestry Service does not have helicopters, but found that getting them from the SC National Guard is not a problem. Most committee members concluded that they did not see the need for the helicopters since the National Guard has alwaya been responsive.

The committee will hold additional hearings over the next two months and Edge expects the focus will be on SC Forestry Services budgetary issues, plans to improve communications and deploying assets. “But will not bWilliam_Bailey_042309ae the end of the story. Other jurisdictions will have to be willing to assist in meeting and acting on the recommendations that come out of these hearings. Changes in recommendations for equipment, radio communications and command structure will involve their cooperation,” said Edge.

Edge concluded by saying, “I appreciate Director Bailey for attending. It was helpful to the process. It is a shame that some of the local agencies were not invited, but hopeful they will send representatives in the future.”

After the meeting, Public Safety Director William Bailey said he believed that the meeting was very positive. “There are some obvious areas where the State, County and the City of North Myrtle Beach can make improvements.” Bailey said that he thought this meeting was “setting the wheels in motion.”

“Everyone, the SC Forestry Service, DNR, the County and the City were just overwhelmed,” observed Bailey. “However, there is the fire and then there are the residents. My focus is on how to better notify residents – create a warning system that will be effective in situations like this.”

Bailey said he was assured that next meetings would bring all parties together.

Representative Duncan, Committee Chair, said that the Horry County Delegation was invited but the purpose was to talk to all state agencies involved with the 600,000 state-owned acres. Duncan commented that he felt progress was made – a lot was learned and the next meeting would be expanded to include Horry County and North Myrtle Beach governments.

One of the many things Duncan felt he got out of the hearing was the need for an inventory assessment so that each agency would know what was immediately available to them in the area, eg. crop planes, nearby water sources, and contact numbers.

In our conversation, he focused on prescribed burning and felt there was a conflict in DNR’s objective to preserve wildlife habitat versus the need for prescribed burning to mitigate wildfire. Citing wildfires in national forests like Yellowstone where wildfire actually benefited wildlife he expressed the hope to see greater cooperation between DNR and the other state agencies.

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