The war being waged against wildfires from Southern California to Greece and Australia is almost as complex as the infernos themselves. Innovative computer mapping tools advance, as do airborne imaging techniques that can look straight through black smoke for views of emerging dangers no firefighter ever sees. However, some crews battle blazes on bulldozers older than they are, and funding is tight all around. Still, the breakthroughs keep coming.

Many U.S. fire agencies toil in a parallel universe, worlds away from the high-tech ones on view during last year’s battle to extinguish Los Angeles County’s massive Station Fire.

California’s largest wildland fire agency — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire — protects more than 31 million acres with a budget that runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina Forestry Commission protects more than 13.5 million acres — 12.2 million acres of it commercial forestland — however SCFC Fire Protection Chief Darryl Jones estimates his budget at, “more like $14 million.”

“We have a dwindling budget, fewer and fewer people, and older and older equipment,” he said. “But the number of fires is still there.”

South Carolina’s different reality was driven home in April 2008 when, in the emotional wake of a fatal city furniture store fire that killed nine firefighters, Charleston’s fire department acquired heat-seeking cameras and air packs. Meanwhile, on nearby James Island, Fire Chief Chris Seabolt was verbalizing his hope to afford pens and paper, medical supplies and cell phones after his proposed budget fell more than $200,000 short. Some departments really wanted flame-detecting thermal imaging cameras, but as Chief Ben Waring told the local Post & Courier, “We also have to keep the lights on in the station and keep fuel in the trucks.”

Back to Basics

Across the nation, fires are typically fought by a complex and varied network of emergency response agencies. And, in a state as huge and populous as California, it’s no surprise that no single agency can handle everything, and that local, state and federal agencies cooperate under contracts and agreements. South Carolina’s SCFC is also part of a network of cooperating organizations. For instance, other South Carolina fire departments handle more than 20,000, grass, woods, brush or trash fires annually. No matter the state, even in 2009, in remote or lightly populated areas, wildfire command centers are still likely to receive the initial alert to a new blaze (and even ongoing fire boundary updates) via phone calls from fire-spotters or citizen observers. The similarities between California and South Carolina, however, end there.

Last April, South Carolina’s sprawling Highway 31 Fire near Myrtle Beach became the second largest in the state’s recorded history. Firefighters worked on sometimes boggy land riding bulldozers with fire plows at the back and blades on front. California’s CalFire also uses hand crews and bulldozers to fight fire on the ground. But while CalFire’s bulldozers are tip-top, state-of-the-art models, the SCFC’s are not only well past their rated life spans of 15 years, some literally are older than the firefighters operating them. And while the SCFC’s bulldozers have safety cages, they certainly don’t have the newer fully enclosed, air-conditioned cabs that California’s do, and that help firefighters work longer in intense heat.

Bulldozer age is a serious concern because, Jones explained, after 15 years “you start having breakdowns, and you put firefighters in front of a big inferno on a piece of equipment that may not be reliable. Two years ago, we had a $1.5 million budget to replace them. This year and last year we had zero budget, so we couldn’t buy any.” The vehicles cost between $135,000 and $250,000 apiece. “You do the math!”

In South Carolina, most wildland fires are caused by folks burning household trash or construction debris. When a fire first starts, it can be hard to distinguish which are common illegal backyard burns or roadside vehicle fires, most of which are quickly extinguished by local fire departments before they have a chance to spread, from a blaze that is a true, growing threat. The SCFC responds to more than 4,000 wildland fires each year, usually when the blazes have grown large enough to be recognizable dangers. These fires average 6 acres, but each year, a few reach 100 acres and a few more reach 1,000–2,000 acres. The Highway 31 Fire, which charred 19,200 acres (info and images here), went way past that.

Previously, 1976’s nearby Clear Pond Fire stood as South Carolina’s largest recorded fire, burning 30,000 acres but no homes. The Highway 31 Fire burned fewer acres yet destroyed 76 homes and damaged 97 more; it became a classic example of the new vulnerabilities created by the expanding urban/wildland interface. (The urban/wildland interface is the geographical zone where homes are now increasingly built, and to which people increasingly relocate, that encroaches upon previously barren land.) With so many homes and communities across the U.S. springing up alongside state and national forests, their increased proximity to fire-risk areas simply puts more people, homes and natural resources in peril. Drought and unusually dry weather have also contributed to dangerous buildups of very flammable materials in some areas.

In the case of the Highway 31 Fire, firefighters believed they had doused what began as a backyard fire. But, it escaped somehow, moving slyly and invisibly into the woods through deep, tinder-dry soil only to re-emerge several days later having blossomed into a serious wildland burn.

Jonathan Calore, the SCFC’s assistant law enforcement chief, recalls that in two hours, a 70-acre fire reached 250 acres and grew more aggressively all afternoon. Suppression is usually easier as night falls — humidity rises and temperatures drop — but not this time. Within 24 hours, it had burned up to 9,000 acres.

Dry vegetation close to Myrtle Beach and the Carolina Bays is especially tricky when it starts burning. “Bushes and other vegetation have a very high wax and resin content,” Calore explained. “They go up almost like you’re standing there pouring gas on them.”

An added danger that was very relevant here is fire’s ability to penetrate the top layer of peat moss or organic soil and smolder underground for days after a fire has passed, burning on in hot pockets invisible to the naked eye.

“These soils are more conducive to holding little embers in them or smoldering for periods of time,” said Calore. “As soon as you break through that upper crust of soil with that bulldozer, there’s no bottom under it. You could sink down in it pretty deep. So it’s very difficult to plow there.”

The department’s small Cessna flew above the smoke, a supposed “eye in the sky,” but could give no location information. “We didn’t have any technology to see through the smoke, or any of that available to us,” said Calore. “And we don’t have that now, either.”

And outside support like the National Guard, Chief Jones pointed out, comes at a price. “Normally we can’t justify the cost of bringing in those other assets unless it’s going to save homes or lives,” he said. So, while the call goes out immediately if a fire threatens residents and their houses, in an undeveloped area where brush and wildlife are the casualties, it may not go out at all.

Initially, this fire raged through undeveloped, wooded areas and despite its size, presented no threat to lives, homes, buildings or to any critical infrastructure. If winds cooperate, firebreaks or clearings will stop the fire, and firefighters worked on through the night to create more. But, at around 2.30 a.m., the wind shifted, and the fire, Calore recalled, “suddenly turned and made a hard run into the community. It jumped a four-lane divided highway (Highway 31), and that’s when we wound up seeing all these homes get damaged and lost.” Dash-cam footage from a North Myrtle Beach police car shows flames 300–400 feet high.

Moving through dense wildlands, firefighters typically clear safety zones for themselves as they go to provide refuge if needed. That night, a male and a female firefighter were trapped when their tractor sank in the boggy soil. They each deployed their personal reflective fire shelter — standard regulation safety gear — and hunkered down. Both survived unharmed.

“That’s basically your last resort if you’re driving one of our tractors with a fireplow,” Jones said. “If you feel like your life’s threatened, then you can pull out your shelter and go to an area where there’s as little fuel as possible, and lay down in it. It looks like an aluminum foil pup tent. As the flames pass over you, it reflects most of the radiant heat off of you. You can huddle down on the ground and hold it down with your feet and your arms, and breathe as low to the ground as you can while the fire burns over and around you, so that you don’t get those direct burns.”

Sometimes pup tents aren’t enough, or there isn’t enough time to deploy them, as in a Banning, Calif., fire in October 2006, when four firefighters lost their lives.

Beyond Bulldozers

Beyond bulldozers, what did SCFC have to work with? Every four or five years, they purchase “pretty high-resolution” color, infrared, aerial photographs that show elevations and topography. During a fire, they are marked up to indicate burn areas and safe zones to help determine where best to plow. Yet these images and maps are completely static. There is no live, updating satellite imagery. Cost precludes almost all high-tech upgrades.

National Guard assistance did ultimately arrive, joining the fight to quash the Highway 31 Fire, but late in the day. “After all the homes burned, after everything went south and it got really bad, it was something we were able to get,” Jones said. “We didn’t have access to that at the push of a button.”

Ultimately, more than 500 people — Forest Service firefighters, local fire department firefighters, police, Air National Guard — fought the blaze, as five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from the Air National Guard and a U.S. Forest Service air tanker joined in from above. The Blackhawks’ “Bambi Buckets” can drop 780 gallons of water a pop on a fire, and they also carry forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, which can locate hidden hot spots.

Since flying embers can start separate spot fires, the most dangerous place for firefighters is between the main fire and a spot fire. “When they burn together, that’s when the most intense heat and energy is released,” Jones said, “and because of vegetation, you can’t always tell if there’s going to be a spot fire a half mile, a quarter mile or a hundred yards off to your side that you’re in danger from. Having something to see that, when there’s all that smoke around, would be invaluable.”

Even without that desired technology, around 4,000 residents were safely evacuated and thousands of homes were saved. “Nobody broke a bone, nobody got burned,” said Jones. “The worst injuries we had were firefighters with blisters from walking all night. With this amount of machinery and equipment, and trees falling and flames, we were extremely lucky. That’s amazing!”

Pacific Standard magazine, 2010
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Sue Russell
Sue Russell