Experts warn of increased wildfire threat in Lowcountry
When a resident of Estates Drive near Walterboro called the fire department last week, he said the grass in his backyard was on fire.
Minutes later, he dialed 911 again to exclaim that the blaze had spread to his home. He hung up.
Crews from Colleton County Fire-Rescue found three backyards on fire Wednesday, but they held the flames at bay. The man’s house wasn’t damaged, but an outdoor shed was destroyed and another storage building and a fence were singed.
To blame: A neighbor of the 911 caller’s had left a barrel of burning debris unattended.
It’s exactly the type of situation that forestry, fire and weather officials are warning about starting today after a cold front swooped into the area overnight, bringing dry air and an increased fire danger.
South Carolina’s fire season does not typically peak until early spring, but winter weather already has dried out vegetation, turning brush and grass into prime kindling.
And with a relative humidity of only 20 percent today, conditions are ripe.
The risk should remain elevated at least until Friday, when forecasters expect a slight chance of rain.
“It’s not critical, but it’s pretty dry right now in the coastal areas,” said John Quagliariello, a meteorologist at the Charleston station of the National Weather Service, which issued a fire-danger statement Monday. “It makes it a lot easier for things to start burning.”
Seven wildfires have been reported in the past week in the Lowcountry, which now is the most active region statewide, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission. The largest among them was a 50-acre blaze that ruined several abandoned mobile homes Thursday and closed in on an Interstate 26 rest area near University Boulevard in North Charleston.
The fire on Estates Drive near Walterboro was one of two that Colleton County firefighters snuffed last week.
The next day, high wind pushed a grass fire through a junkyard at 1285 Nunuville Road, destroying 10 vehicles, several lawn mowers and some tools. It had started when a junkyard worker using a torch accidentally ignited the lawn.
Firefighters again kept the flames from spreading to a nearby home.
Colleton Fire Chief Barry McRoy said his department handles about 450 wildfires yearly. With drier air setting in for the winter, he said, people need to be mindful when they decide to torch yard debris.
“People will set something on fire, then go back inside,” McRoy said. “If they don’t put it out, it can smolder for three or four days, then flare back up at any time.”
But the savior this week might be the absence of what helped the Walterboro-area wildfires: wind.
The weather service forecast for today calls for only 8- to 12-mph winds blowing from the northwest, though higher gusts are possible. The rest of the week should be even calmer.
“Conditions are favorable for fires to develop and burn easily,” Quagliariello said, “but it’s difficult for them to get out of control without the wind. So that’s good news right there.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.