Some smoke now would mean less wildfire danger later.
That’s the trade-off of a new state law that eases lawsuit concerns for forestland managers who do prescribed burns.
It’s a prickly compromise for the Lowcountry, where thousands of acres of forest lie close to populated areas and dozens of burns can take place on the same day. Smoke can hang in the air, spurring nuisance complaints and breathing difficulties, occasionally cutting down visibility on roads.
With populations growing, forest managers have become more reluctant to burn. S.C. Forestry Commission officials estimate that only half the acres are burned each year than are necessary to keep out-of-control wildfires from raging.
The law revision passed in April changes the burden of proof for a lawsuit alleging damage or injury from prescribed burn smoke. The plaintiff now must prove gross negligence or recklessness. Formerly, the proof burden was simply negligence.
The new law is expected to mean a small increase in the number of burns, said Darryl Jones, commission fire chief.
“It’s always a risk,” he said. But even with the revision, burn managers must be state certified and follow regulations designed to protect the public.
And the burns are only permitted in certain wind and weather conditions.
Prescribed, or controlled, burns are late-winter fires set by forest owners to clear away the thatch — dry pine needles, leaves, limbs and other combustible material piled on the ground. The burns help prevent wildfires.
Fires are part and parcel to the Lowcountry pineland ecosystem, needed for wildlife as well as tree and plant growth. The native, wildlife-and-plant rich longleaf forests particularly depend on it. Before controlled burns, wildfires occasionally raged through the ecosystem to clear it out.
But the prescribed burns invariably draw complaints.
“I have never been exposed to conditions like this. I can’t sit on my patio. They are taking away one of my freedoms, which is breathing,” said Joan Boardman, of Berkeley County, who said she previously has lived in Georgia and Tennessee. She opposes the new law, she said.
“This is the 21st century. You cannot tell me we don’t have alternative methods of dealing with underbrush. We’re just going to pollute the airways more and have more issues.”
The constraints on fire managers in populating areas have had catastrophic consequences. A pineland wildfire near Myrtle Beach in 2009 burned 19,000 acres and caused $25 million in damages.
“Without fire you don’t have a longleaf forest,” said Tom Dooley, state fire manager for The Nature Conservancy, which has 13,000 fire-managed acres among its holdings in the state. The conservancy was among the groups that pushed for the bill.
“It’s not just our land we’re interested in. It’s the whole landscape,” Dooley said.
“The real danger (to safety and health) is when you stop burning altogether,” said state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who co-sponsored the bill.
“In the past, smoke and related issues have inhibited property owners from conducting lawful burns. With year after year of that kind of lack of management, you get a wildfire and it goes completely out of control. Do you want to take a little ‘medicine’ all along or do you want to take a whole bottle all at once?”
The American Lung Association recognizes the health concerns of the burns, especially for people with breathing or heart problems, said June Deen, the association’s South Carolina advocacy director.
The association does not oppose the burns. People in the path of the burns should be warned as early as possible, and need to take precautions, she said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.