Agencies, residents reflect on lessons learned 5 years after devastating Highway 31 fire

Charred trees now tower over bright green vegetation between Carolina Forest and North Myrtle Beach along S.C. 31, where the state’s most destructive wildfire burned five years ago.

The fire, which spread over 19,130 acres, damaged 97 homes and destroyed 76 homes estimated to be worth $25 million, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission. The state’s largest fire on record burned 30,000 acres in the same area in April 1976 but is not considered the most destructive because homes were not lost.

Five years after the S.C. 31 fire, S.C. Forestry Commission and Horry County Fire Rescue officials say residents and firefighters have learned lessons, and improvements have been made, particularly in firefighting equipment.

Capt. Tim Rainbolt, with Horry County Fire Rescue, and the commission’s forestry protection chief Daryl Jones said the area continues to be vulnerable for another fire because of the vegetation and landscape, but the changes made in each agency will help in the future.

Firefighters with the S.C. Forestry Commission used Vietnam-era fire tracks during the fire in 2009, said Doug Mills, the agency’s fleet manager. Fire tracks and fire plows are the two main pieces of large equipment used by the commission. The plows are used as a first attack to dig breaks around the fire, removing vegetation which acts as fuel and works to prevent the blaze from expanding, Jones said. The fire tracks carry water tanks and “are generally the second wave in” to put out hot spots, he said.

Since the fire, the commission has purchased two fire plows, which are kept in Georgetown County. They are larger than the agency’s other tractors, have closed cabs and are primarily used in Horry and Georgetown counties because of their size.

“In this area we try to plow a break that’s two or three tractor-widths because of the intensity of the fire,” Mills said. “We need something that’s large enough to stop it. A small fire plow line that’s only 6-feet-wide won’t stop a lot of these bay fires.”

Mills said the Forestry commission also uses two new fire tracks, which have closed cabs and cost about $200,000. The agency hopes to purchase a third this year, he said.

State Forester Gene Kodama, said the new equipment is reliable and the closed cabs, which weren’t used in 2009, provide protection for machine operators.

He said that during S.C. 31 fire there were burnovers – tractors were stuck and “the fires literally burned over top of them.” He describe an instance where he said two forestry officials who needed to seek protection got off their tractors, lay on the ground in small puddles of the water with an aluminum shelter tent over them and survived.

“People get killed like that,” he said. “But with an enclosed cab, they turn everything off, put the shelter on to protect from radiant heat, stay in there while the fire goes past and you can survive.”

Horry County Fire Rescue also made equipment changes that officials say would allow firefighters greater mobility and maneuverability during fires, including the repurposing of older battalion trucks as brush trucks which Rainbolt said aren’t as heavy and can handle off-roading better.

Rainbolt said the biggest change is the community’s awareness.

He said the agency was working to educate the community with Firewise techniques before 2009, but the fire further fueled those efforts.

Firewise training includes tips about landscaping, which can help reduce risk of fire.

“People just didn’t understand that we live in an area that’s quite volatile where we’ve got to stay vigilant,” Rainbolt said.

“I think the average citizen took it more seriously.”

Barefoot Resort residents who survived the fire were quick to utilize Firewise education during the rebuilding, eliminating pine straw from the landscaping and using all brick instead of vinyl siding.

Bob Portteus and his wife Jo Ann were among those who rebuilt.

Bob Portteus, 84, said he can’t believe it’s been five years.

“It seems like yesterday, but I haven’t thought about it since it happened,” he said. “I’ve got too much to look forward to. I’ve got everything to be thankful for.”

An empty lot where a house burned and was not rebuilt separates the Portteus home from neighbors Carolyn and Wally Gergich.

The Gergichs were living in North Carolina at the time of the fire, but were in the neighborhood the day before the fire started overseeing construction projects for Wally’s sister who owns a house in Barefoot Resort, but lives in New Jersey.

Seeing a family member’s home reduced to rubble didn’t stop the Gergich’s from purchasing property on Swift Street a few months after the fire.

“It was kind of scary and it still is because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Carolyn Gergich said. “But, we still came down and built a house because we just love it.”

She said the smell of smoke can cause her to pause, but said she doesn’t worry much.

“I think more people are paying attention to what’s going on,” she said.

“That’s what keeps me from worrying.”