A once beautiful, forested section of Carolina Forest is now covered with ashes and rubble from what used to be 26 condominium buildings.
The March 16 fire in the Windsor Green development that left 190 people homeless has been a called a perfect storm of high winds, low humidity and the sheer destructive force of Mother Nature.
Now that the smoke has cleared, county officials are looking for lessons to take away before the next disaster. And residents of not only Carolina Forest but other forested parts of Horry County are wondering what to do to help avoid another tragedy of this magnitude. Unfortunately, preventing every fire just isn’t possible.
Scott Hawkins, spokesman with the South Carolina Forestry Commission, said there’s a certain amount of risk that comes with developers and residents wanting to live in places with thousands of tall, sprawling, rich trees.
“It’s beautiful,” Hawkins said.
But Horry County is at high risk for wildfires because of factors like vegetation and community developments in thickly forested areas.
“The very thing that attracts so many people to that part of the state is the very thing that’s burning,” Hawkins said.
In Horry County’s Carolina bays, for instance, the oily leaves of wax myrtles and gallberry can burn like petroleum. And even the peaty soil is flammable. The shrub bogs, which are found throughout the county, can contain three times the fuel per acre of a typical pine forest.
Hawkins also pointed to the cultural risk ingrained in the area by generations of family members who have been burning on family lands in the rural part of the county.
With warmer, windy conditions and homes being built closer together, wildfires in the Carolinas and other states have been increasing, said Steve Quarles, a wildfire expert and senior scientist at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.
“When people think about wildfires they often think about out west. People mostly think about California where there have been fires that have destroyed thousands of homes. There are very few places in the United States where wildfires don’t happen,” Quarles said. “I think these things are going to be happening. We see them in Florida, Texas and places that haven’t been normally thought of as big wildfire places.”
These wildfires are sometimes caused by careless people, but the most common start is lightning, Quarles said. So builders and people living in wildfire prone areas must be proactive to protect themselves.
“What can communities do that are close to woodland areas? They need to look at vegetation management, fire breaks and planned management areas where vegetation is managed so that a wildfire cannot move into the community as a fire,” Quarles said. “What do you do to the home or building to protect and have it resist the ember exposure? You really can’t. Embers can be flown for a mile or so in front of the main fire. No matter what kind of fire breaks the community has done, it’s unlikely this can be done to prevent these embers from landing in and around the development.”
But Quarles said homeowners can create a 30-foot buffer between their home and wooded areas, use less flammable materials for landscaping and stay away from pine straw and mulch and keep their roofs and gutters clear of debris will help minimize fire exposure.
“Firewise programs and education are going to become a critical component,” Quarles said. “It’s important to educate homeowners to the importance of embers and vegetation management around the house.”
Hawkins said the lack of 30-foot buffers in Windsor Green was part of the reason things went so wrong on March 16. Forestry officials didn’t even need to engage in a wildfire defensible event.
“It was a structure fire by the time we got there,” he said.
One thing Hawkins stressed is there is no interest whatsoever in logging Horry County’s rich, forested areas in order to prevent fires like the one at Windsor Green. What they would like to see is controlled burning to reduce the fuel loads. However, those burns can’t always be done if they’re close to smoke-sensitive areas. In those cases, a better understanding of how brush fires are caused is the best defense.
Fire, Hawkins points out, is naturally occurring, although in the case of the Windsor Green blaze, human interaction led to ignition.
“It’s when you don’t respect it and don’t prepare for it that you have an obstacle,” he said.
Hawkins said the Windsor Green fire is going to lead to a spike in interest in the Firewise community program locally.
Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge said at Wednesday’s Carolina Forest Civic Association meeting the county will work on getting this information out to communities all along the Grand Strand.
In a bit of tragic irony, community leaders in Carolina Forest met with emergency management officials on March 14 – two days before the Windsor Green fire – to talk about one of their pet projects: communication of wildfire potential and alerts.
The fire in Windsor Green moved so quickly that alerts would have been of no use. Some of the alerts residents received were simply neighbors banging on their doors and telling them to get to safety. Time was of the essence, and most weren’t able to grab cherished possessions.
Bobby O’Dell, a New York native who bought his condo in Windsor Green eight years ago, spent Wednesday digging through the rubble looking for jewelry or anything he could salvage.
“We found some sponges that weren’t touched,” he said.
O’Dell had gotten home just before the blaze began.
“This is just horrible,” he said.
Dealing with an emergency
Horry County officials are working to determine what went well during the blaze and what they can do better the next time they are faced with such circumstances, said Randy Webster, Horry County’s Emergency Management director.
“We’re putting together information to do an after-action report,” Webster said Thursday. But it was too early to say what lessons they learned during the disaster.
One part that’s being looked at is why the initial 911 call about the fire was transferred to the city of Myrtle Beach, thereby leading to a three-minute delay in dispatching the first units.
Lisa Bourcier, Horry County spokeswoman, said the discrepancy was discovered Thursday and is being looked at as a personnel issue. As of Friday, she wasn’t sure what led to the confusion, or whether those extra minutes could have made a difference.
Officials did not use a notification system to warn residents of the fire because it happened so quickly they did not have time to send the message, Webster said. The fire was over in about 30 minutes and the system is not equipped to send out such a message so quickly.
“We did not use it this time. It takes a little time to get it prepped and get the message sent out,” Webster said. “From the time we got involved with it, from the emergency management perspective, the fire had been contained and evacuations were over.” So the decision was made to not send out a message similar to a reverse 911 call, Webster said. In a situation where there is a general woods fire that is an ongoing event, the notification system would likely be utilized.
“No one else was going to be impacted by this fire and once that was determined we did not need to use,” Webster said. “That’s a huge issue with that notification issue because it takes so long to set it up, determine the areas to notify and determining the message.”