After budget cuts, is SC ready for wildfires? - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

After budget cuts, is SC ready for wildfires?

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This land right behind the SC Forestry Commission headquarters in Columbia was part of a recent controlled burn to reduce fuel for wildfires. This land right behind the SC Forestry Commission headquarters in Columbia was part of a recent controlled burn to reduce fuel for wildfires.
By: Robert Kittle
 
The South Carolina Forestry Commission on Monday morning lifted the Red Flag wildfire warning for the state, which it had issued because of dry conditions and high winds. But that warning, along with an Horry County fire that destroyed more than 100 homes and started as a brush fire, focus attention on an agency that saw its budget cut in half between 2008 and 2011.
 
"If we have two or three major events going at one time with large quantities of units, it'll definitely put a major strain on what we have," says Jonathan Calore, the SC Forestry Commission's assistant law enforcement chief and a forestry firefighter.
When he started at the agency in the late 1990s, it had more than 500 employees. Today, it has 294.
 
"We're doing the best we can do," he says. "That's the best I can say. We're going to respond to the fires as we get to them. If we get to a point where we're tapped out or we see we're getting tapped, then there are other sources that we can use."
 
The state is part of the Southeastern Fire Compact, an agreement between Southeastern states to help each other when necessary. If South Carolina didn't have enough resources to fight wildfires, it could ask for help from Georgia, North Carolina, or any other Southeastern state.
 
The commission is getting some relief from state lawmakers. Last year, they passed a bill that took 2.25 percent of the annual insurance premium tax and put that money toward buying new firefighting equipment for the Forestry Commission. That bought 10 new enclosed tractors for the firefighters who cut fire breaks to stop wildfires.
 
The commission is expecting to be able to buy 9 more units this year. That would mean it would have 19 new units out of 160, about one-third of which are at least 17 years old and have passed their expected lifespan, Calore says.
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