Neighbors burned by wildfire want stricter penalties

An 178 acre wildfire Saturday has neighbors of the man ticketed for causing the fire wanting stricter penalties.

"I don't think that's fair, as a matter of fact, I think it should be illegal," says Asmae Sououd, who lives on West Perry Road.

That's the street where the South Carolina Forestry Commission says Larry Michael Faircloth was burning on Saturday afternoon. The Forestry Commission cited Faircloth after his debris burn caused a wildfire near the Legends neighborhood off Highway 501.

Saturday, Faircloth was given two tickets in connection with the wildfire; one for allowing fire to escape and burning lands and another for failure to take proper precautions for an outdoor debris burn. If found guilty, he could face a fine of up to $720, said Forestry Commission spokesman Scott Hawkins.

"That's it?" said Amber Blake, when she heard the penalty. "I think it's completely unfair. He could have burned down all of our houses."

The fire led to evacuations, and for residents of the Legends, Myrtle Trace, and West Perry neighborhoods, it's the third wildfire in that area in 12 years.

In South Carolina, it's not illegal to burn debris, like yard waste, as long as you let the State Forestry Commission know ahead of time. There's no permit or fee, which is a common misconception, Hawkins says.

"We used to give people their "notification number" when they called in to notify us of a planned debris burn. That practice of giving a caller a "notification" number ended on July 1, 2001, partly because people misinterpreted that as a permit," he explained.

In terms of penalties, the Forestry Commission lobbied the state's various judges and magistrates to lean toward fining defendants the maximum, Hawkins says.

"Our hope was that instead of getting the fine lowered, people would get the stiffer penalties allowed under the existing law, thereby creating a deterrent to sloppy, careless debris burns."

Fines went up after that. To date, here are the fines under the law for our two most common tickets written when debris burns, like Saturday's, escape:

SC Code of Laws 16-11-180 Allowing fire to spread to lands of another (maximum fine $470.00 per count, including fees and court costs.)

SC Code of Laws 48-35-10 Failure to notify Forestry Commission of a planned burn/failure to take proper precautions to keep the fire contained (maximum fine $262.50 per count, including fees and court costs.)

We compared South Carolina to California's laws, a state known for its wildfires.

Janet Upton, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, says the state handles the majority of rural and suburban areas, similar to Horry County's makeup.

Upton says California also allows people to burn for free. They did have to go through the permitting process, and there are restrictions in place. For example, debris burns can only take place during the spring.

The big difference between there and here, California goes after something called cost recovery. Meaning, if something like Saturday's fire happened in California, Faircloth would have had to cover the costs of the entire firefighting effort.

"We can go after the responsible party for the cost of the fire, and that is something we aggressively do," Upton says.