This commentary was originally published in the Post and Courier.
The recent wildfires in Maui were devastating to learn about and, just like all wildfires in recent history, devastating to watch happen, even from far away. In Maui, people had only seconds to leave their homes, and some even had to run into the ocean to escape the flames. This is horrific, and my thoughts are with those impacted by this tragedy. Watching the coverage, I couldn’t help but think about the possibility of a devastating wildfire happening much closer to home.
Horry County and the Carolina Forest area have had two of South Carolina’s largest wildfires on record, one as recently as 2009, but areas across our state are vulnerable to wildfires. If we don’t take this seriously, we are increasing the risk that another large wildfire will occur in the near future.
Prescribed fires help combat wildfire intensity and severity and should be a tool we accept and use commonly. However, prescribed fires, or controlled burns, are often challenged. Sometimes these challenges come from the environment, like too little or too much rain or relative humidity that is down in the teens. Far more often, these challenges come from us and from smoke-sensitive areas, our built environment, adjacent to the places that require burning.
Why jeopardize increasing wildfire severity, intensity and risk by siting a hospital or any other smoke-sensitive development in an area that is fire-dependent? It makes no sense to site these vulnerable facilities behind fire drop gates that are placed strategically to ensure prescribed fires are sustained into the future and conducted safely for both our natural resources and people.
We must plan for future wildfires, and building a new hospital in the middle of a fire-dependent ecosystem, as Conway Medical Center is suggesting we do, is not only foolish planning; it is dangerous planning.
Fire-dependent does not mean fire is optional; it means fire must and does happen regularly, whether set on purpose by trained professionals through prescribed burns or left to burn uncontrollably as a wildfire when conditions are unfavorable and dangerous.
Prescribed fires can’t eliminate the risk of wildfires, but they will remove hazardous buildup of forest fuels that contribute to greater wildfire risk, severity and intensity. The impacts of prescribed fires, due to their controlled and professionally planned nature, are short, maybe lasting a day or two and leading to small inconveniences such as road closures. Wildfires can last weeks or months, can cause massive inconveniences and unfortunately lead to loss of property or even life.
Additionally, a forest that is managed routinely with prescribed fires is a forest that will allow for emergency support to have more time and options whenever a wildfire occurs.
There are trusted tools and tested methods available to us to lessen the risk of a tragic wildfire happening in our backyard, and we must employ them and build our structures to allow for them to be used.
Trapper Fowler is a certified wildlife biologist, prescribed fire manager and the North Coast project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.