THE GASTON FIRE
April 1, 1966. By mid-morning, firefighters knew it was going to be another long day in a long string of long days. At 10:00 a.m. the winds were clocked at 25 mph and the humidity had already dropped into the twenties. Fires were popping up everywhere; by noon there were more fires than firefighters.
South Carolina was in the middle of what would become known as the worst week in the state’s wildfire history. In the seven-day period of March 30-April 5, Forestry Commission firefighters would respond to literally hundreds of fires, ten of which ranged between 1,500-8,000 acres.
No part of the state was harder hit than the sand hills belt that cuts across the state from Aiken to Bennettsville. Right in the middle of this lies Lexington County and, on April 1, Lexington County faced a wildfire emergency of major proportions.
We would eventually call it the Gaston Fire, but when it started about 12:30 that Friday afternoon, it was just another fire on the waiting list. Every firefighter was already committed to other blazes and the Gaston Fire started building up steam.
Within an hour, almost a thousand acres of forest had been reduced to a smoking ruin.
What had started as a tiny spark had become a fearsome engine of destruction, a half-mile wide and running with the wind. Thirty-foot flames lashed ahead, lying almost parallel with the ground while burning embers rained down a half-mile in front of the blaze.
The first firefighters arrived about 2:45 p.m. They plowed, they pulled back, they plowed some more. Local volunteers with farm tractors assembled to assist. More firefighters arrived, but at 6:00 that evening a dry cold front blew through the midlands, whipping the flames into renewed fury.
The fire doubled in speed; in less than an hour it ran two and a quarter miles. The heat intensity during this evening run was estimated at eleven times that of a normal wildfire. At 9:30 p.m. a pillar of glowing embers rose 500 feet into the air, threatening the town of Gaston. And then, around 10:30 p.m., the massive blaze began to spawn thunderstorms. Trained weather observers first saw lightning, then witnessed a large cloud that hovered over the fire and appeared to draw flames up into its base.
No rain fell on the Gaston Fire that night, but Forestry Commission lore has it that fire-generated rainstorms put out fires in adjacent counties.
It took 25 Forestry Commission firefighters, 225 volunteers, and an eventual shower of rain to control the Gaston Fire a day and a half later. By that time 7,400 acres were burned, including 21 cabins on the Boy Scouts' Camp Barstow. All traces of the fire are now gone, but for old firefighters memories of that apocalyptic night still burn brightly.
THE CLEAR POND FIRE
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This is the largest forest fire ever recorded in South Carolina. It burned 30,000 acres in the area of Horry County known locally as the Buist Tract. The fire was about 14 miles long and varied in width from 6-7 miles. The burned area extended from near Wampee to the west side of US 501.
The fire started from an unattended campfire on April 10, 1976, at Clear Pond off SC 501 southeast of Conway. The persons responsible were never apprehended.
With relative humidity in the teens and pushed by 20-30 mph winds, the fire burned burned 11,000 acres by midnight.
On April 11, the smoke column was 10,000 feet high and extended 200 miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The smoke column was visible to weather satellites circling the earth. Ashes and burned debris from the convection column were scattered as far as 40 miles north of the fire scene.
During the afternoon of April 11, the wind shifted, creating a headfire 14 miles wide. Before the day was over, an additional 17,000 acres had been added to the fire’s toll.
A wind shift before daybreak April 12 turned the fire toward the southwest. Winds gusted up to 22 mph, and the relative humidity dropped to 14%. US 50l was closed as firefighters massed along the highway in an attempt to hold fire there. With burning embers raining down a half-mile ahead of the flames, the fire crossed the four-lane highway with ease.
Aerial tankers from the NC Forest Service arrived on the afternoon of April 12 bombarding hot spots and breakovers with liquid fire retardent.
The fire was contained about 1:00 pm on April 13, but was not declared under control until mop-up was completed on April 17. There were no fatalities or serious injuries associated with the fire, nor were any homes lost.
More than 65 Forestry Commission bulldozers and 113 Forestry Commission personnel from 28 counties fought the fire. About 200 others, including fire department personnel, forest industry firefighters, and civilian volunteers were directly involved in firefighting operations.
Emergency services personnel from law enforcement agencies, Civil Defense, DSS, Red Cross, etc. also participated in the effort. Local individuals, church groups, and businesses provided food and lodging for firefighters.
The area burned in the Clear Pond fire is one of the most volatile areas in South Carolina. In 1954, the Bombing Range fire in the same area burned more than ten thousand acres; in 1967, the Conway-Socastee fire burned more than six thousand acres. And in 2002, the Legends fire burned 1,648 acres.
THE RED FOX ROAD FIRE
Camden area residents still remember the windy March day when wildfire paid a visit to Red Fox Road. Before the day was over, eight homes were in ruins and forests were scorched in a swath extending across 2,000 acres.
It was March 12, 1985. South Carolina was struggling with one of the worst extended wildfire seasons on record. And at 8:45 a.m., a wind-blown tree branch ripped into a power line along Kershaw County’s Highway 97, sparking what eventually became known as the Red Fox Road Fire.
Quick response by Forestry Commission bulldozers and the Camden City Fire Department stopped the blaze at about 12 acres. Soon thereafter, the bulldozers were called to another fire, leaving the fire department to monitor the burned area alone.
At 12:26 p.m., high winds whipped embers from the smoldering area into adjacent woodland, and the Red Fox Road Fire started its historic run. Winds were now 20-25 miles per hour; with most local Forestry Commission bulldozers working another blaze near Cassatt, the fire quickly raged out of control.
By early afternoon, winds were estimated as high as 40 miles per hour. The fire leaped across plowed firebreaks and paved roads with ease, running 5 ½ miles in just two hours.
Directly in its path was Red Fox Road, an exclusive neighborhood of homes and stables of fine horses.
Firefighters rushed to defend the homes. It was a frantic, desperate fight . . . men and machines against a roaring, mindless wall of fire. Within minutes, the battle for Red Fox Road was over and the fire had moved on. Eight homes were reduced to smoking rubble and two fine horses were dead.
The Red Fox Road Fire was finally controlled on the morning of March 13.
HIGHWAY 31 FIRE
South Carolina's worst wildland urban interface fire started on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 in Horry County. Due to extreme fire behavior (low humidity, high winds, flammable vegetation) the dangerous Highway 31 Fire had burned 19,130 acres, destroyed 76 homes and damaged 97 others before being controlled. Shifting winds and abnormal nighttime weather conditions made the fire very unpredictable and dangerous. No lives were lost and no injuries occurred on the wildfire.
The SC Forestry Commission and Horry Fire & Rescue responded to the fire April 22 at 12:24pm. Fire behavior was extreme with rapid rates of spread. It made a 6-mile run that afternoon to Highway 31. Within a few hours, what started as a small woods fire became the worst wildfire in South Carolina’s history. Highly volatile, continuous fuels, dry weather, strong winds, and unusual weather events combined to create a powerful force of nature that was unpredictable, resulting in 76 homes destroyed, 97 homes damaged, destruction of many other structures and vehicles, plus much business lost by the surrounding community. Early Thursday morningthe fire ran across Highway 22 towards the Barefoot Resort area causing the most damage and loss of homes. The evacuation of 2500 people was ordered during the nightl.
During the initial attack, the unusually rapid growth and spread of the fire made it difficult for agencies to stay in contact and share information. While emergency coordination involving multiple agencies, jurisdictions, and disciplines was very difficult, Horry County, the City of North Myrtle Beach, and the Forestry Commission worked together to ramp up operations quickly and ultimately establish unified command on April 23. This process allowed the responding agencies to coordinate communications and operations during the rapidly growing event.
The Highway 31 Fire far exceeded the impact of the other 2,001 wildfires the Forestry Commission responded to during the 2009 wildfire season and was easily the largest wildfire since 1976. The $50 million in damage was the greatest of any past wildfire. Its impact was only surpassed by past wildfires that claimed the lives of firefighters and citizens. The fire response involved agency personnel from every part of the state, either on the fireline or providing valuable support to the firefighting effort. The extreme fire behavior, inaccessibility, and complexity of the Highway 31 Fire made it very difficult to control and put the lives of citizens, firefighters, and other first responders in great jeopardy.
The Highway 31 Fire response was indeed a cooperative effort, involving more than 700 individuals from more than 20 different agencies. Many of these agencies had never responded to a large wildfire, but they effectively brought their experience in dealing with other natural disasters to bear during this event.
Total personnel, including fire service, National Guard and emergency operations totaled over 500. Five National Guard Blackhawk helicopters with water buckets continue to assist ground crews.
SCFC's Type 2 IMT, who handled the event, was released April 30 and all remaining mop-up and observation was handed back over to the Pee Dee Region. Due to rain received on May 4th all personnel were released from the fire May 5th.
PINNACLE MOUNTAIN FIRE
The longest, largest and costliest fire in Upstate history began Wednesday, Nov. 9 on the southwest side of Pinnacle Mountain in Pickens County. Although more than 10,000 acres were burned, no lives were lost, and no property was damaged in the fire that was finally declared controlled Friday, Dec. 16.
With a backdrop of a lingering drought, low relative humidity, and strong, gusting winds, the State Forester had issued a State Forester’s Burning Ban Nov. 9 for Anderson, Greenville, Oconee, Pickens and Spartanburg counties.
A wildfire was reported on the morning of Nov. 9 spreading up Pinnacle Mountain with embers falling down the cliffs. Crews immediately responded to the two-acre fire, but the unforgiving terrain and inability to get bulldozers all the way around the perimeter prevented them from containing the blaze. The following day a 20-person hand crew of SCFC wildland firefighters and Pickens/Greenville-area fire service personnel ascended the mountain and began digging hand lines around the perimeter, which had grown to 25 acres. Later in the day another hand crew joined to assist with digging and the response continued to grow with the agency’s deployment of its Type 2 Incident Management Team. The South Carolina National Guard also joined the firefight by sending a Black Hawk helicopter to make water drops on the fire. Over the next two days, dozens of additional agency firefighters and support personnel joined the effort.
By Friday morning the fire had grown to 200 acres growing evenly outward from its original circular perimeter. The blaze would quintuple in size in the next 48 hours, despite assistance from the helicopter drops, bulldozers and hand crews.
The mountainous terrain was too steep and treacherous in certain spots for the bulldozers to work, so much of the line construction was done by hand. The forested mountain had not been burned – prescribed or otherwise – for as long as anyone could remember. The duff was at least a foot deep in most places, providing an abundance of seasoned tinder on the already dry forest floor. With the long-term drought, gusting winds, leaves falling from hardwood trees, and lower-than-usual relative humidity, the danger to firefighters was very high. Numerous spot fires occurred in unburned fuel well away from the flaming front.
As the fire grew, so did the number of support personnel. Scores of fire departments, emergency management agencies, medical services professionals, Red Cross volunteers and media outlets responded. Evacuations were made as a precautionary measure in case the fire continued to grow at its rapid pace.
Realizing early on that the fire had the potential to overwhelm the agency’s ability to contain it quickly, Forestry Commission officials had made official requests of the US Forest Service for additional hand crews from other states, but they were unavailable because of so many other fires in the region.
A light rain the morning of Sunday, Nov. 13 – the first rainfall in more than a month – offered a glimmer of hope, but it did not dampen the fire appreciably. The precipitation actually hindered suppression efforts that day, particularly on the steeper, rockier parts of the mountain, because firefighters could not get to the firelines for the slippery, unsafe conditions.
Burnout techniques were used to try to contain the blaze but by Wednesday, Nov. 16 the fire had burned all the way to neighboring Table Rock Mountain. More evacuations were ordered as a precaution. Firefighters were hoping the Saluda River would help contain the fire, but due to the extended drought across the Piedmont, the drastically reduced flow of water in the river was narrow enough to simply step over in many places. The fire took advantage of ripe, dry fuels – primarily dead and dying hemlocks – scattered along and overhanging both banks, essentially jumping the river.
The breach allowed the fire to spread quickly up the nearest peak, Rocky Mountain, by Sunday, Nov. 20, prompting incident command officials to request additional air assistance. The Forestry Commission called in two CL-415 amphibious water scooping aircraft, which arrived that afternoon; the planes dipped from Lake Jocassee until nightfall, dumping up to 1,600 gallons of water with each drop. Varying combinations of Black Hawk and/or Chinook helicopters had been dropping water daily on the fire’s spreading front since Nov. 10.
A Type 3 IMT from Utah joined the incident command staff Nov. 20 to provide planning, logistics, operations and information support and relieve SCFC team members. The fire continued to grow and meander northwest to Buzzard Mountain. Incident command staff ordered two more hand crews from out of state as well as another Chinook and Type 3 helicopter to remain on standby if needed for additional water drops. The expansion of the fire and the number of resources being requested made the Pinnacle Mountain fire the second-highest ranking incident in the Southern Area Coordination Center’s priority list by Monday afternoon. SACC is the organization that determines how, when and where orders for personnel, equipment and other resources are deployed to agencies making such requests. Additionally, the incident management team’s finance chief estimated the total cost of the firefighting effort, including personnel, time and resources, now exceeded $2 million.
By Tuesday, Nov. 22, the fire had grown to 6,000 acres. Gov. Nikki Haley issued a state of emergency for Pickens and Greenville counties. In a matter of 24 hours, the fire grew by more than 1,000 acres and was spreading toward the North Carolina state line. Another burnout was planned in cooperation with personnel from the North Carolina Forest Service but it was delayed due to light rainfall and gusting winds. The light rain actually held crews back from making greater progress with line construction because it made the terrain just slick and dangerous enough not to allow work. Two more days would pass, and another 2,000-plus acres burned, before the second major burnout could be conducted.
The next week saw firefighters, whose ranks by now were bolstered by the addition of professional hand crews ordered from out-of-state, gain the upper hand on the blaze, as they continued to extinguish hot spots, conduct smaller burnouts, reinforce firebreaks and patrol lines to keep them clear of leaf litter. The fire surpassed the 10,000-acre mark Nov. 28, and although it was contained at 60 percent.
The additional manpower was enhanced greatly as well by more favorable weather conditions, including lower wind speeds, higher humidity and more – and more frequent – rain. The area received more than an inch of rain that night, providing much-needed relief for the drought-stricken area, for firefighters and for the blaze itself. Several days of continued rain prevented work on the fire until Dec. 2; by the next day, officials reported the containment percentage had risen to 92 percent.
Frontline firefighting resources would be scaled back over the coming days, line improvement and “mop-up” operations would continue for weeks. Some of this work also entailed improving the Table Rock State Park trail system, much of which had been closed since the first days of the fire.
Incident command announced the fire had been 100 percent contained 26 days after the escaped campfire ultimately consumed 10,623 acres. That decision followed another heavy shower that moved through the area the day before, the fourth day of significant rainfall in the preceding week. Crews would continue mop-up work for another week-and-a-half before officials would finally declare the fire controlled Friday, Dec. 16.
With an average of 200 personnel on scene each day, personnel from all over South Carolina and surrounding states and as far west as Oregon, California and Washington traveled to Pickens to fight the fire surprisingly with no fatalities or loss to property. The month-long firefighting effort known as the Pinnacle Mountain Fire became the longest, largest and costliest fire in Upstate history.