SCFC report raises concerns in Horry Co. wildfire

Horry County, SC - HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Nearly one year after South Carolina's most destructive wildfire ripped through Horry County, the South Carolina Forestry Commission is revealing budget restrictions and breakdowns in communication could prove costly in efforts to contain future wildfires.

The South Carolina Forestry Commission released its 35-page "After Action Report" online Monday, assessing successful firefighting tactics and the issues that were encountered while fighting the blaze.

Firefighters with Horry County Fire Rescue were dispatched to what began as a two-acre wildfire on Woodlawn Drive off of Highway 90 in Horry County just before 12:30 p.m. on April 22, 2009. Within 36 hours of its ignition, flames consumed nearly 20,000 acres of land, destroyed 76 homes and damaged another 92.

At its peak, officials wrote the fire consumed more than 1,100 acres per hour and packed flames approximately 270 feet tall.

More than 150 personnel from the South Carolina Forestry Commission assisted the cooperative effort of 700 other emergency workers from 20 different agencies to contain and extinguish the fire.

Officials say a major cause for concern during the agency's initial response was communication between agencies, an area hindered by what the report calls the "unusually rapid growth and spread of the fire." The SCFC says expertise was not available in several key areas and liaison officers were not given adequate communication equipment.

North Myrtle Beach Fire Chief Tom Barstow explains the problem by saying that the radio frequencies between responding agencies were not in sync, thus keeping them from communicating initially.

"As fast as [the fire] traveled, we didn't get a real good communication system going real quick," said Barstow.

However, he also adds that because this fire was so unpredictable, the outcome would probably not have dramatically changed with increased communication.

"As far as stopping that fire or controlling that fire, there was no way," explained Barstow.

While communication proved to be a large hurdle in the agency's efforts, officials warn the inability to replace aging equipment and to find and retain qualified firefighters could prove costly in future efforts. Officials write there was a lack of available personnel in close proximity to the fire, and in some cases, was due in part to a mandatory furlough prompted by agency budget cuts.

"Some tractor plow operators were not immediately available for dispatch, and others were on regular days off," the report stated in reference to command staff issues. "Additional support was requested from other counties, but travel time increased as a result."

Scott Hawkins with the South Carolina Forestry Commission adds that they have seen their budget cut by 33 percent since the 2008-2009 fiscal year. The cuts have officials worried that funding could dwindle again in the future.

"We're prepared, even with these cuts, to handle a moderate fire season, but what happens is, you can't replace your aging equipment," said Hawkins. "Our tractor plows we fight fires with are on a 15 year replacement cycle. We've suspended that because we can't afford $250,000 for a new unit."

Should an occurrence of multiple fires happen in the future, SCFC officials say it will "easily exceed response capacity" and could result in a devastating loss of homes, forest assets and possibly lives.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • The area burned in the fire, generally known as the "Buist Tract," has a long history of large wildfires.
  • The lack of roads, deep, mucky peat soils and thick vegetation made it difficult fore firefighting equipment to operate safely and efficiently.
  • Firefighters took appropriate independent action where possible to assist in the evacuation of the Barefoot Community and to minimize structure loss.
  • Coordination was not maintained between the incident and SCFC dispatch, leading to confusion over what resources were assigned to the wildfire and which were available for dispatch incidents.
  • There was an inherent lag time between the arrival of the Incident Management Team and its ability to get accurate and helpful information out to a worried public.
  • During the afternoon of April 22, civilian aircraft interfered with air operations. A temporary flight restriction was requested, but not in effect until after dark.
  • There is no single method available to quickly communicate the threat of a wildfire to surrounding communities.

The fire, contained on April 28 and controlled on May 20, 2009, caused nearly $25 million in damages and burnt an additional $17 million in timber.

To read the complete report, click here.

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