South Carolina Still Looking for Lessons from Myrtle Beach Wildfire

October 5, 2009

The fire chief in one of South Carolina’s busiest tourist spots said he won’t alter his agency’s practices even though his crews failed to extinguish a small blaze that mushroomed into the worst wildfire in state history.

Chief Garry Alderman, who heads the fire and rescue agency for wildfire-prone Horry County, also told The Associated Press his department has not formally reviewed the half-acre brush fire that rekindled, destroyed 76 homes and damaged nearly 100. The blaze charred 31 square miles near Myrtle Beach in April and sent plumes of black smoke over golf courses, restaurants and trinket shops that draw vacationers from around the country.

Agencies in other fire-prone areas have different methods for re-checking small fires to prevent such disasters.

“I’ll be very honest about it — we haven’t come up with anything different we could do,” Alderman said a month before the fall fire season started in late September.

Fires can roar back to life after smoldering undetected — sometimes for days, sometimes underground — and can be tough to head off. But experts say flare ups may be prevented by crews that drench fire scenes with thousands of gallons of water, leave behind sprinkler systems, or return to ensure fires aren’t sparking back to life.

“Standard policy is, we’ll go down there as many days in a row as it takes before we know the fire’s out,” said Gerry LaCavera, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Florida Division of Forestry.

Horry County, which covers more than 1,100 square miles and has 309 paid and 238 volunteer firefighters, relies solely on homeowners to monitor the aftermath of a brush fire. Alderman insists that will not change.

“We don’t go back and check unless we get a call to go back and check,” he said. “There’s no way I could ever have somebody patrol a half-acre fire or a one-acre fire all the time. I hate to use the word ‘assume,’ but when you go out there and you have it out, you assume that it is out. … If it is smoking, trust me, in this area down here, they’d call.”

The inferno that eventually consumed 19,130 acres near the state’s tourist mecca started as a backyard debris fire.

Authorities said the homeowner, landscaper Marc Torchi, failed to let officials know he was burning, and he let the fire spread. Torchi faces $732.50 in fines, but believes he has been unfairly blamed.

Torchi said when the fire got out of control, he called firefighters.

Records, transcripts and tapes of 911 calls reviewed by the AP show Horry County responded to the fire twice, first at 5:30 p.m. with a crew of five. Torchi told them the fire was out, and they left. Records didn’t indicate whether firefighters actually checked.

Less than an hour later, Torchi called the department again, asking firefighters to return to fight a larger blaze that had spread into dense woodland behind his property. A crew of three responded and thought they put it out. Records show they were on the scene for 42 minutes.

“We soaked everything down with the foam and made sure we had no embers or nothing else showing at the time,” said Charlie Pryor, a 71-year-old retired firefighter and volunteer since 1986. ” … There was no fire left, and we got out of there.”

It was among 48 calls a county fire truck responded to that day, which was a slow Saturday. Yearly, the county responds to some 43,000 calls.

Firefighters didn’t return for four days, when a series of frantic 911 calls brought them back to find a home ablaze. State forestry officials were then called.

Overnight, the humidity had dropped, winds picked up, and a wall of flames sprinted toward the coast. Softball-sized embers fell nearly a mile ahead of the flames, lighting pinestraw landscaping and vinyl siding in North Myrtle Beach, where residents were awakened and fled minutes before fire demolished their homes. Authorities were amazed no one died or was seriously injured.

As North Myrtle Beach was still smoking, state officials said some tough questions would be asked of Horry County officials. While the Forestry Commission has nearly completed a report on its response to the wildfire, it does not address any action taken before forestry workers arrived on the scene.

On average, wildfires burn 30,000 acres annually in South Carolina compared to about 5.3 million acres nationwide in 2008. In California, a massive wildfire that started Aug. 26 burned about 250 square miles northeast of Los Angeles. Two firefighters were killed and 89 homes destroyed.

Federal fire agencies don’t have standards for checking back on brush or woods fires because different terrains are less susceptible to rekindles. Southeastern fire officials said such checks depend on conditions, and how busy their agency is.

The potential for rekindles in Horry County and along parts of the U.S.’s southern Atlantic coast is high due to peculiar formations called Carolina Bays, which burn ferociously. The elliptical bays, filled with waxy plants dubbed “gasoline bushes” and peat moss that can reach depths of 15 feet, make the region notorious for wildfires. The state’s largest, in 1976, burned 30,000 acres, but didn’t destroy any homes.

Experts familiar with Carolina Bays and similar terrain said going back to check for smoke once or twice daily is the best way to prevent rekindles.

“I prefer to verify for ourselves that we don’t have indications the fire has picked up heat,” said Will May Jr., public safety director for Alachua County, Fla.

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