Preservationists try to save fire towers

For more than 12 years, Mary Tice never went anywhere unless it was raining.

That's because Tice, 54, spent those years working at two of Horry County's four fire towers for the S.C. Forestry Commission, looking for smoke that could signal a devastating wildfire was cooking.

“It didn't matter if it was hot or if it was cold,” said Tice, who now lives near York, S.C. “If it was not raining, and there was a chance of a fire, that tower was manned.”

The Forestry Commission began decommissioning fire towers in 1993 with the advent of new technology, and only 40 of the state's 160 fire towers are left. Horry County history enthusiasts are trying to preserve the county's two remaining towers, built in the Depression era, but the Forestry Commission is opposing any formal historic designation that could hamper its ability to sell the property.

There could be other ways to save the towers, at least one of which helped spot the Buist tract fire in 1976 near Carolina Forest that burned 30,000 acres, the largest wildfire in recorded state history.

Parts of the 110-foot towers could be put in a museum, although not everyone is keen on the idea.

“It's always the last choice to dismantle them and take pieces of them,” said Joel Carter, chairman of the county's board of architectural review. “It's always the best case to have the historical structure intact.”

The towers will be discussed at the board's August meeting.

At the Meade fire tower, on S.C. 544 near Coastal Carolina University, the handrails are rusty and wobbly and some wooden planks are missing from the stairway. The county's other tower is near Aynor on S.C. 319. The two towers in Loris and Wampee have been taken down.

Being placed on the historic register would require a public hearing for any major changes to the structure, which forestry officials said would make it more difficult to take down the towers, make modifications for safety reasons or sell the property. Most of the towers have not been maintained since 1993.

Not all the towers are sitting idly. Some serve as radio towers for the Forestry Commission, said John Dickinson, the regional forester for the Pee Dee region, which includes Horry County.