Councilmen: State agencies hindered fire response - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

Councilmen: State agencies hindered fire response

By Laura Thomas - bio | email
     Brandon Herring - bio | email

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Did they drop the ball? That's what some Horry County councilmen are wondering about the response by some state agencies during the Horry County Wildfire.

At an Horry COunty Public Safety meeting Monday, County Councilman Al Allen said that the agencies involved - most notably the South Carolina Forestry Commission - lacked the funding, equipment and command structure to properly fight the fire.

"[The SC Forestry Commission] was fleeing from the fire, Horry County fire trucks were going to the fire," explained Allen at the meeting Monday, describing what he calls the miscommunication during the fire.

"There would have been a clear understanding of who was assigned to do what, where that fire needed to be stopped at, at where a stand needed to be made, and all the resources pooled and turned toward that one central command decision," he added.  "I think that would have helped a whole lot, instead of different agencies going off and doing their own thing, and attempting to chase a fire instead of stop a fire."

Councilman Bob Grabowski agrees.

"As far as the coordination goes with Horry County, they definitely dropped the ball. We could have worked together a lot better during the whole fire operation," said Grabowski.

However, Allen went a step further by saying that if these state agencies would have done their jobs, the fire might not have even reached the Barefoot Community.

"You have to have proactivity in a situation like this," explained Allen. "[State agencies] did not have it. That's why it got out of hand. That's why it got as bad as it did. Homes were lost that probably should not have been lost."

Allen says Horry County Fire Rescue should have been allowed to call the shots, not the state agencies.

The Horry County Public Safety Committee is now developing a plan where the county could have more control during future events like the the wildfire.

The South Carolina Forestry Commission responded with the following statement:

"The SCFC is responsible by law for wildfire control as stated in SC Code of Laws Title 48.  To accomplish this mandate, SCFC has and continues to work closely with hundreds of FDs around the state and all 46 counties in a cooperative manner just as we work with many others agencies (e.g. SCDOT, SCHP, SCDNR, etc) and private organizations.  The Commission is highly trained and properly equipped for its wildfire control task, just as other agencies are trained and equipped for their particular tasks.  Such tasks should be handled by the organization best suited to the responsibility.  These varied skills and equipment sets come together in situations where the event is large in scope or extended in duration.   In such situations, the Commission utilizes its Incident Management Team and its specialized training and expertise and establishes a Unified Command Center to work with its cooperators to control the situation.  The IMT process was used on the Highway 31 wildfire and has been used on other large scope events and is available to assist all over the state for not only wildfires but other disasters as well.

The Commission's review of the Highway 31 fire continues with additional sessions being held over the next few weeks to gather data and assess the operation.  The results of this process will be available this summer.  Numerous sessions have already been held with county, city, and private groups to aid in preparation for future fire events and to avoid potential damages.  One fact that can not be questioned, is the fact that similar fuel and home site conditions exist across the state, and the Commission and its county, city, and private allies must be properly prepared with equipment and training to provide the emergency responses that will be necessary.

A few facts that we do know is that the Highway 31 wildfire was a "disaster" in that an extreme and rare natural event occurred in a highly populated area.    Also, the human response to that natural event was outstanding given the hundreds of homes and dozens of lives that were saved under extremely dangerous conditions.  This was accomplished due to the highly trained and dedicated professionals that responded and also the public that listened to emergency response personnel and did their best to save themselves and others and support the responders."

Some homeowners in the Barefoot Resort community agree with Allen, telling WMBF News some homes could have been saved, or at the least, people could have been evacuated earlier.

Jim Harrington said he felt let down because he and his neighbors weren't notified soon enough that the fire was coming. Harrington said he wasn't sure who "dropped the ball," but he was open to Allen's opinion that state agency control during the wildfire may have hurt the county's efforts.

"The county, they're here all the time.  They should be able to handle it, but if they need assistance from the state or someone else get it at that time," Harrington added.

Don Epner, who also lives in the Barefoot community, agreed that homes should have been evacuated earlier.

He said it's more difficult to say different leadership during the wildfire could have changed things. Instead, Epner believes county and state leaders should be looking toward policy changes that will help them in similar future situations.

"There's not enough decision making followed by action and a whole lot of talk about who did what to whom and if they'd only done it differently it would have worked out differently," Epner said. "I don't think so because the weather can't be controlled."

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