In 3 years since Horry County fire, there's still more to do

Tom Collins remembers well the early morning in late April 2009 that he, his wife and their son couldn’t flee from the front door of their home in Barefoot Resort because a wildfire was at their stoop, and any talk about a chance of fire is a big deal to him.

“I want to see everything done to prevent another fire,” Collins said late Monday morning. “I know they’ve done some things, but I don’t think they’ve done enough.”

Now, with the Saturday three-year anniversary of the 1,900-acre fire, the S.C. Forestry Commission is worried both about much how some of the vegetation destroyed then has regrown because of a lack of controlled burning, and about trying to get communities such as Barefoot to join the national Firewise Community effort.

Mike Bozzo, the Forestry Commission’s Firewise coordinator, said he has been working with Barefoot management and homeowners association officials, but to date the community has not done all it needs to become Firewise.

The state helped the community fund underbrush cutting in wooded areas, but refused to give it a grant to replant road medians that have highly flammable vegetation and pine straw mulch that was there before the fire.

Pine straw culprit

Collins said it used to be the rule that only pine straw could be used as mulch throughout Barefoot. Bozzo said the ever-present pine straw acted as a wick that transported the quickly moving fire to the homes that were damaged and destroyed. He said Swift Street residents where he lives had quite a fight to get the rule eased so they could replace the pine straw with less-flammable pine bark mulch.

Collins said his son woke up him and his wife around 1:30 a.m. the morning of the fire. A wall of flames roared from the nearby woodland. His son opened the family’s front door, but was driven back by the heat of the fire raging in the pine straw in his planting beds. The family had to escape through a back door and dash from the house to their car, which their son had backed out of the driveway and into the street.

“The fire was all around us,” Collins recalled.

Collins’ wife lost her shoes and purse in the pandemonium of getting to the car.

“I said just leave them,” he remembered telling her. “We don’t have time.”

They headed for a street Collins knew would take them to U.S. 17, but the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see a road sign and drove past it. When they encountered a new wall of flames, they reversed direction, found the road and made it to safety.

Looking up and down his street Monday morning, Collins counted 12 homes that burned to the ground. He credits a neighbor who stayed behind and doused his pine straw with a garden hose for saving his house, which survived with one hole burned in a dining room wall.

Becoming ‘Firewise’

Bozzo said residents of nearby Briarcliffe Acres have taken action to make theirs a Firewise Community. On Saturday, the third anniversary of the wildfire that nearly destroyed Collins’ home, Briarcliffe will have its third annual Chipping Day.

Bozzo said that on Chipping Day, the town hires a contractor that chips and hauls away vegetation residents leave at roadsides. Bozzo said some Briarcliffe residents like to keep the chips for mulch.

Other Grand Strand communities that have joined the Firewise network, Bozzo said, include Walkers Woods and two subdivisions within Carolina Forest. Linsbrook, Prince George Ocean Lakes and Debordieu are all working to become Firewise.

Barefoot would have to form a Firewise committee and collect $2 a year from each residence to be in the organization, Bozzo said. After that, it would have to commit to writing an annual report to Firewise.

Bozzo said that the threat of wildfire now is relatively lower than normal for this time of year because of the early greening from an early spring. But Ron Holt, Black River Unit forester for the Forestry Commission, noted that the underbrush in some areas of Horry County is uncomfortably high because two dry summers have not lent themselves to controlled burns that would have eliminated much of it.

Holt said a large open area on private land across S.C. 22 from Collins’ home would definitely slow down a fire headed toward Barefoot from the same direction of the 2009 fire.

On weather watch

April is the peak wildfire month in South Carolina. The 2009 fire that started at the southeastern edge of Conway was the largest in the state’s history.

“This area is very prone to fire and it is a matter of when a fire will occur, not if it will occur,” Holt said.

But Collins thinks the odds are heavily against another one rolling over his home in the middle of the night. He has no plans to move, he said.

Indeed, others who have moved into nearby Barefoot neighborhoods admit to having concerns, but like Collins, have no thought of moving.

“Every time we smell smoke, we’re worried,” said Joseph Cina, who lives on Weatherwood Drive, a mile or so from Collins.

He lived in a Barefoot condominium when the fire happened, but decided nevertheless to move toward the area it ravaged.

“I’m from New York,” Cina joked. “I’m crazy.”