Horry County vows to make changes to fire awareness after Carolina Forest association prompt

jrodriguez@thesunnews.comSeptember 19, 2013 

— The Carolina Forest Civic Association came to Horry County last month to suggest some changes in fire safety education and response in the wake of the Windsor Green condominium fire earlier this year, and the county listened.

Paul Whitten, assistant county administrator for public safety, told the public safety committee Thursday that the county has already begun speaking with members of the association and wheels are in motion to make changes.

The county has been examining its actions after the March 16 Windsor Green fire, which caused an estimated $11.6 million in property damage and destroyed 26 condominium buildings in the Carolina Forest area.

Suggestions from the association, which were brought forth in August, include helping the county become a fire-adapted community, which is a community that “takes responsibility for its wildfire risk. Actions address resident safety, homes, neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure, forests, parks, open spaces, and other community assets. The more actions a community takes, the more fire adapted it becomes,” according to the website fireadapted.org, a federal coalition of federal fire agencies.

“It is my opinion that this is a worthwhile goal,” Whitten told the committee. “This is not something that happens overnight or we do this in a month. It’s a continuation dynamic process.”

He said it will take a collaborative effort between law enforcement, planning and zoning, and community members to make the fire-adapted community effective. He vowed to update the public safety committee on a quarterly basis as to the progress of this initiative.

Also, the civic association asked the county to create a call-in system for all unincorporated areas east of the Waccamaw River. That would require all that plan to burn east of the waterway to call in and let local fire authorities know it was going to happen. Whitten said the county would struggled with this request because of a lack of personnel to dedicate to administering the call-in system, and would struggle with enforcing the restriction.

He said call-in systems are more effective in places where local fire personnel may take longer than the S.C. Forestry Commission to report to fires. That’s not the case in Horry County, he said.

“In Horry County, almost all wildfires are reported to 9-1-1,” Whitten said. “here is not a problem where forestry is working for hours and hours before we even know about it.”

The civic association also suggested that the county restrict golf courses from burning debris, which initially was where the Windsor Green fire was believed to have started. Whitten said the county plans to work with area golf course owners groups to work on voluntary measures that golf courses can participate in to make sure the right departments know when a course is burning.

Whitten said he plans to meet with County Administrator Chris Eldridge to come up with a plan for the county to declare its own burn ban when necessary. Fire Chief Fred Crosby said the International Fire Code, which the county has adopted in previous years, allows it to make its own declaration of a burn ban.

“I think that we should utilize this resource more than we have in the past,” Whitten said. “I think Horry County has had enough loss of homes and enough loss of property that the fire chief is well equipped to make some of these decisions based on the location situation on the ground.”

The civic association asked the council to require all utility companies with easements to maintain the land that the easement runs with, and encourages the council to work toward a compromise with landowners concerning the maintenance of privately owned and undeveloped property.

Whitten said that suggestion almost gets into a conflict with the county’s zoning regulations that require a visual barrier for utility easements, but a lot of the barrier is fuel for a fire.

“So instead of trying to address all utility easements and all privately owned land and undeveloped land, what I’d like to do is do on a case by case basis,” he said.

Whitten commended the association for bringing the suggestions forward.

“I think that there’s a lot of good stuff here,” he said. “This problem does not go away. It doesn’t get solved and we put a check in a box and forget about it. It’s something that will be here forever.”

Bo Ives, a member of the association, said

“Our intention was to begin a dialogue,” Ives said. “That dialogue was dynamic. We’re moving in the right direction and this exactly what we hoped to come up with, which is positive action toward each of the recommendations we’re making.”

In other news, the committee:

Voted to create a fireworks prohibited zone for Brighton Lakes at Carolina Forest subdivision. No one spoke at the public hearing Thursday.

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.

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