SOUTH CAROLINA (WMBF) - Officials with the South Carolina Forestry Commission hope a new, aggressive approach to citing illegal burning violations will bring more wildfire awareness across the state.
Chief David West, of the South Carolina Forestry Commission's law enforcement division, has asked magistrate judges statewide to impose stricter fines on people found guilty of violating the state's burning laws.
"As of this month, SCFC law enforcement officers have been given a new directive to aggressively enforce laws pertaining to debris burn violations," West wrote in the letter. "More than half of all wildfires in this state last fiscal year were preventable."
West says of the more than 3,000 wildfires the SCFC responds to each year, more than 20,000 acres of forestland is burnt.
"It's getting[to be] spring time. March winds [are blowing] and things will break loose then," West said.
The sobering statistics, combined with an agency that has had its budget cut by 45 percent over the past two years, have pushed the SCFC to request stronger illegal burning penalties.
If a person allows a fire to spread to the land of another person, the maximum penalty that person can receive is a $470 fine per violation, including fees and court costs. West says should a person fail to report a planned burn to the SCFC or fails to take proper precautions to keep the fire contained, a maximum $262.50 fine is issued.
Depending on the situation, officials say fines have been reduced in some cases to a $75 penalty. The two violations are among the violations most often cited by the SCFC, officials claim.
"You're responsible for your fine," West said. "If it's your land, you're responsible for it."
Jerry Check, whose home was destroyed in 2009's Horry County Wildfire, says he sees the penalties and fines as a 'slap on the wrist.' Check says he believes violators of the state's burning laws should be fined by the thousands.
"We walked out with just the clothes on our back," Check recalled, when asked about the 2009 fire. "All of the keepsake things, all of the collectibles [were gone]. I think they really need to bring down harsh, harsh penalties on people."
"Our agency knows magistrates will exercise their best judgement," West said. "The State Forester hopes this new stance on dangerous outdoor burning will send a clear message to others who may otherwise burn such a way as to put lives and property of their fellow citizens at risk."