Man fined in wildfire pleads guilty Wednesday

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A man fined in the most destructive wildfire in South Carolina history pleaded guilty in court Wednesday morning on two tickets and was fined $732.
Marc Torchi faced a judge in Central Jury Court in Myrtle Beach, a magistrate-level court. Torchi had earlier requested a jury trial in the case.
An April wildfire along the Grand Strand that destroyed 76 homes and damaged nearly 100 others started four days earlier as a debris fire in Torchi's backyard, said Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

"Our investigation based on all the evidence we saw points us to the origin area in his backyard as the same origin area from where the fire from April 22 came from," explained Jones.

Torchi was fined $732, 50 cents less than the maximum allowed by law.
Until his court appearance Wednesday, Torchi had said he was unfairly blamed. He says he called Horry County firefighters when his fire got out of control and firefighters thought they had completely put out the fire.
Scott Hawkins of the South Carolina Forestry Commission says Torchi is not held responsible for the Horry County Wildfire.

"These burns can get out of hand, and that person can be held, at least in the court of public opinion, liable for the larger fire. As far as the forestry commission is concerned, Torchi is not criminally responsible for that wildfire," explained Hawkins.

Following Wednesday's plea, the South Carolina Forestry Commission issued a statement:

"Today Mark Torchi pleaded guilty on charges of allowing fire to spread to another's land and failure to notify the SC Forestry Commission about an outdoor debris burn. While much attention has been paid to this case due to the subsequent Highway 31 Fire, it is important to remember that the charges made against Mr. Torchi (in the form of two tickets) and today's trial relate only to the debris burn he conducted on his property on 4/18/2009. Mr. Torchi at no time has been held criminally responsible for the larger wildfire. Today's verdict finds him guilty solely for those offences for which he was ticketed, not the Highway 31 Fire."

The SCFC responded to the SC-31 fire on April 22 and began investigating the cause. Investigators used witness statements and wildfire spread indicators to document that Torchi lit an illegal backyard fire on April 18, which spread onto the adjoining property.

According to dispatch records, the SCFC said, Torchi failed to notify them before conducting the outdoor burn as required by law.

"Based on wildland fire spread indicators, the Forestry Commission believes that the Highway 31 fire that the agency responded to on April 22 originated from the debris burn lit by Torchi on April 18," said SCFC spokesman Scott Hawkins in a press release. "It is not uncommon for wildfires, especially fires occurring in areas with heavy amounts of fuel, to rekindle at a later time when relative humidity drops and windspeed increases."

Copyright 2009 WMBF News. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.