Rain does little to alleviate wildfires; burn ban continues

A midday thunderstorm dumped rain on some parts of Horry County Wednesday, but did little to help alleviate the Hornet Fire that crews from the South Carolina Forestry Commission have been working to contain since Sunday.

"If anything, it's hurt us," said forestry spokesman Russell Hubright. "We've had no measurable rainfall here (at the scene of the fire)."

Hubright explained that bulldozer crews have to stop working for safety reasons when there is lightning in the area, so their efforts to widen firebreaks around the wildfire were delayed for about an hour Wednesday.

Still, division supervisor Sam St. Louis said his crews have made good progress keeping the fire from spreading over the last two days.

"The lines are a lot stronger than they were, we've been able to straighten them out, widen them out and catch these little spots."

Forestry spokesman Scott Hawkins said the Hornet Fire - so named because several forestry workers were stung by hornets on the first day of the fire - remains 75 percent contained, with 805 acres burned.

A second fire, off Highway 905 between Bear Grass Road and Harrelson Road, has been fully contained, after burning 178 acres, Hawkins said. Forestry crews reported smoldering on the interior of the fire brought on by the rain and stumps that continue to burn, but the wildfire remains contained.

Wednesday's rain had no effect on the burn ban that is still in effect for Horry and 13 other counties in the Pee Dee region. The state forester has outlawed outdoor burning in unincorporated areas until further notice. The rest of the state is under a red flag alert, which means the Forestry Commission does not prohibit outdoor burning but asks people to voluntarily postpone outdoor burning until conditions improve.

St. Louis said the ban on burning was badly needed for the Pee Dee region, because it will cut down on accidental fires that forestry crews would have to respond to while resources are stretched thin.

"It's really the lull that we need, help us catch up on things, because these guys are putting in 12 to 15 hour days, multiple shifts, and it's hard to put resources here (on the Hornet Fire) when we're also trying to make them available," St. Louis said.

Hubright said outdoor trash burning that might be acceptable during normal conditions is illegal and unwise during a burn ban, when conditions are abnormally dry.

"It really wouldn't take much for even a careful burner, for their fire to escape. So if we can reduce the number of accidental fires, then we can concentrate our efforts on others that occur," Hubright said.

Some rural residents may feel that burning debris in a barrel is still safe, but Hubright said those fires can still produce embers that could escape and start a fire.

"It's not illegal to burn in a barrel, but you better be very, very careful, because even if you're not violating the burn ban, if your fire escapes and spreads to lands of another, you're in violation of another law, so it'd be better just to wait."

Hubright said the state is cracking down on illegal burning, urging magistrates around the state to impose tougher fines on violators.

Forestry officials say the state issued $19,000 worth of fines for illegal burning for the months of March through May of last year. This year, fines have topped $60,000 over the same period.

"That really sends a good solid message that this is serious business," Hubright said.