Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve
Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is located just west of Myrtle Beach and is easily accessed from S.C. Highway 90 or S.C. Highway 31 via International Drive. Just over 10,000 acres, this natural area was dedicated as a heritage preserve given its unique assemblage of Carolina bays, which are elliptical or oval depressions unique to the East Coast, longleaf pine forests, and rich biological diversity. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources maintains the pine savannah habitat through frequent prescribed burns, also called controlled burns. These fires are similar to natural fires ignited by lightning, and they maintain the habitat that is home to these imperiled and endangered plants and animals.
The area around the preserve has changed dramatically since the early 1990’s when the Carolina Forest community was being planned. The preserve today is surrounded by four-lane highways, and growing neighborhoods on its boundary. That makes it harder to conduct prescribed burns, which are necessary to maintain the habitat for rare species and reduce fuel loads for wildfires. Conway Medical Center has added to this challenge by proposing a hospital across from Lewis Ocean Bay. And Horry County has proposed creating a mitigation bank—which is an area of wetland conservation set aside to offset the damage from building roads—that will also require controlled burns.
CONWAY MEDICAL CENTER
Horry County Council is considering a rezoning request, Future Land Use amendment, and development agreement that would allow Conway Medical Center to build a new hospital directly across from the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is a fire-dependent ecosystem that requires frequent prescribed burning to maintain habitats for many rare, threatened, and endangered species such as Venus flytraps and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Of the 76 heritage preserves in the state, Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is the most biologically diverse.
In addition, Horry County has invested $12 million in adjacent wetlands for a mitigation bank that has not yet been authorized by the U.S. Army Corps. The pending mitigation bank is just north of the proposed hospital site and will also require prescribed burning to release full credits that will be used to offset impacts for improvements to infrastructure throughout the county, but also burned in perpetuity as governed by the Army Corps of Engineers.Horry County Rezoning Lewis Ocean Bay
This area has experienced numerous wildfires, including two of the state’s largest wildfires on record. The Highway 31 fire in 2009 covered over 19,000 acres and destroyed 76 homes. Routine prescribed burning reduces forest fuels, thereby decreasing wildfire risk and severity. Building a more resilient Horry County will include lowering wildfire risk by ensuring prescribed fire stays on the ground in this location.
Building a medical facility at the proposed location would severely limit SCDNR and the South Carolina Forestry Commission’s ability to use prescribed burns at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, as a hospital is a critical smoke sensitive area. Burning at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve is already a challenge due to Carolina bays with peaty soils (high smoldering potential), sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean, highly flammable pocosin fuels, and proximity to the urban interface.
Locating a critical smoke sensitive area like a hospital in such close proximity to both Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage and the Horry County mitigation bank will remove an entire cardinal direction from the limited options burn managers currently have when planning a prescribed fire. A burn a manger cannot send smoke towards any smoke sensitive area that is within 1000 feet of the planned burn site.
The window of opportunity for burns is already constrained. Building the medical facility across the road would further limit SCDNR’s ability to manage Lewis Ocean Bay, putting surrounding communities and rare species at even greater risk.
Unique places like Lewis Ocean Bay are part of what makes this region so special. Now more than ever, with the rapid growth along South Carolina’s coast, we need to stand together to protect our natural resources.