March 23, 2013

Before the Next Fire

If you live in Carolina Forest and your community doesn’t already have a fire prevention plan, you should be asking yourself about now: Why not?

If you live in Carolina Forest and your community doesn’t already have a fire prevention plan, you should be asking yourself about now: Why not?

The tragedy we witnessed last week at Windsor Green, in which 26 buildings were reduced to ash and rubble in hours, should be a wake-up call for residents.

The fire spread to buildings in a matter of minutes, officials said, illustrating the flammability of the area, whose peaty soil and oily-leafed vegetation is particularly prone to wildfires. In that environment, taking action to reduce that risk should be a priority for residents and homeowners associations. That could mean actions as simple as not using pine straw or mulch in landscaping. Or it could mean taking the steps to become a Firewise-certified community, an option many local communities latched onto after seeing the devastation from the 2009 Barefoot Resort fire that consumed more than 19,000 acres near North Myrtle Beach. As the local economy picks back up, builders would also be wise to build fire prevention and mitigation plans into new developments that are springing up once more.

Though the investigation into the fire’s cause continues, officials have ruled out natural causes, pointing to human activity as the disaster’s spark. That could mean anything from a tossed cigarette to arson. While investigators have ruled out an uncontrolled trash burn as the cause, it’s an activity that has caused blazes in the past, most notably in the Barefoot Resort fire. As a result, local governments are sensibly continuing to refine their rules on the practice.

North Myrtle Beach banned all outdoor burning after the 2009 fire and continues to prohibit any of the fires within its city. Four days before the Windsor Green fire, Myrtle Beach City Council gave an initial approval to a ban on burning yard debris within the city. Burning trash within the city is already illegal, but this would logically extend that prohibition. It doesn’t matter to a fire whether it’s begun by trash or yard clippings. And after the Windsor Green fire, Horry County’s administrator quickly announced that in the future open burning would be automatically forbidden in the county when a state red flag warning is issued, as it was before last weekend’s fire. The action is a good one, but we’d encourage the county to go further.

Given the size and diversity of Horry County, a blanket ban on outdoor burning is not feasible. There are plenty of undeveloped and agricultural areas far from homes where fires pose less risk to residents. But an ordinance proscribing burning in close proximity to developed areas would not be out of line. At the very least, as the county continues to grow, especially in heavily developed areas such as Carolina Forest, a new look at the rules governing outdoor burning is in order. And we need to ask tough questions. How close to residential developments should we allow fires? Two hundred feet? Five hundred? The issue stretches beyond Carolina Forest to any part of unincorporated county.

Myrtle Beach, for instance, is full of “doughnut holes,” areas of county-governed land that follow county rules rather than city ordinances. City spokesman Mark Kruea pointed out that “burning occurs in the doughnut holes, and we have no control over it. Fire does not pay any attention to the jurisdictional boundaries, so a county fire could quickly become a city fire, but we’ve been fairly fortunate so far.”

Last weekend’s blaze was a tragic event that nobody would like to see again. To that end, our next task is to learn from it and put in place solutions that will help prevent future disasters. That means not only preparation on the government level through revamped ordinances, but also changes by residents and neighborhoods to make their homes as safe as possible. We won’t be able to avoid every fire, but we can make them smaller and less frequent.

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