As I listen to the wildfire reminders that were broadcast April 18, my thoughts turn to two related events.
My first recollection comes from the multitude of newspaper and television stories that reported the horrendous wildfire that burned more than 19,000 acres of woodland in Horry County just a year ago. Subsequent stories and reports attempted to make sense of the actions of our public safety officials but still leave too many unanswered questions. This article addresses just one of those questions.
My second recollection is an excerpt from the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which goes like this:
"One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
Never miss a local story.
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
Now what does "Paul Revere's Ride" have to do with a local wildfire in 2009? Even as far back as April 18, 1775, our forefathers had the wisdom to develop a simple plan to alert the country folk when danger was imminent. By contrast, neither our local Forestry nor the North Myrtle Beach Public Safety officials appeared to have any procedures to alert the public when their property and more important their lives were in imminent danger from wildfires.
Some would like to excuse the multitude of blunders by claiming it was a very unusual fire that officials could never have anticipated. I say bull! Public safety officials should always develop "worst case scenarios" and then test their plans and protocols with these scenarios to ensure they will work under all conditions. Senior public safety officials who fail to carry out this critical responsibility must be replaced, because they represent a danger to the community they are being paid to protect.
I do not know if either Forestry or North Myrtle Beach Public Safety officials had ever developed and tested their wildfire notification and evacuation plans and procedures. Even if they had such plans, they didn't work.
When the wildfire had grown to the point where it continued to spread, Forestry officials should have notified the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, N.C., to issue a "wildfire watch" alarm for Horry County. If this simple procedure had been followed, the public could have been prepared for the nightmare that was to follow.
Then, on that fateful night, the officer who was monitoring the fire's rapid progress from the overpass on S.C. 22 should have called 911 instead of trying to call the Public Safety director whose cell phone either had been turned off or was out of range. He simply needed to recommend that a "wildfire warning" alarm for Horry County along with an evacuation order for the residents of the Barefoot Resort area of North Myrtle Beach be issued.
The lack of workable wildfire plans and procedures by both the Forestry and the North Myrtle Beach Public Safety officials was a major cause of the disaster that ensued. Such plans and procedures must include the use of the National Weather Service All Hazard Weather Radio System to alert the public of impending wildfire danger, because trying to do it on a house-by-house basis is an exercise in futility. That's what weather radios are for.
Both governmental elements need to fix this problem. Thank God no one died as a direct result of last year's blunders. We may not be so fortunate next time.
The writer lives in Murrells Inlet.