Signs of life are returning to areas touched by 2009’s S.C. 31 wildfire, as they undoubtedly will in the western areas where millions of acres have been ravaged by blazes over the past month.
Saplings and various vegetation dot the landscape of the thousands of acres where just a few years ago nothing but charred timber and beds of ash were prevalent.
With the new growth, however, comes renewed danger because of the uniqueness of the landscape along the tract near the S.C. Coast.
Horry and Georgetown counties, as well as other spots in the Pee Dee region, are areas of highest risk for wildfires in the state, said Scott Hawkins, S.C. Forestry Commission spokesman. A variety of factors contribute to the risk, including relative humidity, coastal winds, waxy vegetation and Carolina bays, which are round- or oval-shaped depressions in the terrain. Those in Horry can be seen on a map with the untrained eye, and in many instances, they contain dense forestland that resists traditional firefighting efforts.
Unlike the western region, which fires are mainly fueled by winds, the combination of factors on the Strand make the threat constant for a blaze … and one that could escalate into a catastrophe very quickly.
“They’re unique to North and South Carolina – a phenomenon just for us,” Hawkins said about the bays. “Sometimes they have lush, waxy vegetation – pitcher plants, Venus flytraps and things unique to our state – and they’re quickly flammable, heavily organic, and the soil itself is just lush, and [fires there are] very, very, very difficult to extinguish.”
Hawkins said those fires tend to settle in and sit, needing a good tropical storm to help burn them out. In the meantime, they require “a lot of babysitting,” he said, like a Carvers Bay fire that began in May and only recently was completely extinguished.
With 88 percent of forestland in the region being privately owned, Hawkins said there has not been a widespread effort here to remove highly flammable vegetation. He said landowners need to consult with foresters to see if their property is suitable for controlled burns, a process that safely burns off those fuels but requires planning, preparation and a lot of manpower.
“What land managers of all ilk will tell you is prescribed fires are the way to mitigate against wildfire,” he said, but consult with fire officials first, as in some areas, the measure could cause more problems than it would solve.
Drought conditions also are a concern when measuring the risk of a fire. Horry County’s drought status was listed as incipient, or in the initial stages, an improvement over last year when it was moderate besides a point in July when it hit severe. However, there was no drought at all when the blaze broke out in 2009.
Still, a drought will exacerbate any wildfire that might start, said Darryl Jones, forest protection chief for the forestry commission, who said the fuel that burns so aggressively is found in spades in the stretch between S.C. 31 and S.C. 90. He said the humidity – usually high this time of year – has been lower than normal in most of the area, making fires easier to start, and some recent storms haven’t helped, as high temperatures have quickly evaporated any accumulated rain.
Jones said his department is busiest from February through April because most of those same conditions – low humidity, high winds and dead vegetation – are present and create a good recipe for fires to get big fast.
Property owners can take action to minimize their risk in the event of a wildfire. The S.C. Firewise program works with homeowners, communities and neighboring areas to make landscapes more protected, said Rocky Tucker, Firewise field coordinator for the coastal counties. Briarcliffe Acres, The Farm at Carolina Forest and Walkers Woods in Carolina Forest are a few of the communities that have worked with the program, and these three are officially recognized as Firewise Communities on the program’s website.
Tucker said communities can request help from Firewise officials, who can go in and assess a community’s potential risk hazards, as well as set up a community wildfire protection plan. Officials make recommendations on what the community can do as a whole, including the creation of defensible space between homes and any woodlands bordering the property.
“Thirty feet is an ideal defensive space, but 15 feet will work,” Tucker said. “What you’re really looking at is that setback that makes it safe for firefighters to get in with fire-control resources.”
Tucker said homeowners should clear volatile vegetation from around their houses, and officials have suggestions for safe plant substitutions. They also advise using mulch instead of pine straw in areas close to a structure and keeping gutters clean. The group also can work on individual cases with homeowners, and Tucker said grants are available to help those homeowners when improvements are cost-prohibitive.
Firewise officials have been working with some landowners, mainly in Georgetown County, with large timber holdings adjacent to communities to reduce the fuel load in those areas, Tucker said. Some municipalities in Horry County also are starting to look at large woodland areas within their city limits that could pose a threat and are working with local fire departments to reduce fuel in those areas, he said.
Literature also is available for developers and builders to help them gear developments toward fire safety from the start, but ensuring setbacks and taking other precautions adds a little extra to their costs.
“It’s not so much that they’re against it so much as they’re looking at the bottom line,” Tucker said.
Ultimately, homeowners must take the lead in fireproofing their property as much as possible, said Hawkins, who said forestry officials would like to see proactive people get some type of break on their insurance. He said people moving to this area, or those building new homes, should be sure to use fire-safe building materials, and that it’s never too late to begin making necessary adjustments to existing properties.
“Defensible space is the word of the day,” said Hawkins, who said that terminology is being used in the western part of the country where fires have been raging since last month. “Firefighters will triage houses if they can for those who have clearly tried to do the work. It happens a lot out West that they give priority to those properties. ... Taking responsibility for your property can meet us halfway.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.