Western wildfires cost S.C.

A helicopter drops water on hot spots on the uncontrolled forest fire in North Myrtle Beach in 2009. File/Staff

A historic home slowly crumbles outside McClellanville. Large South Carolina landowners have trouble getting state help with controlled burns. Recreation opportunities are scarce on some of the state's largest public lands.

Those three realities share one thing in common: They're all affected by the U.S. Forest Service's escalating costs of fighting wildfires.

Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dropped by the Lowcountry on Friday in part to raise awareness of this growing problem.

Bonnie, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the nation's fire season is currently 60 to 80 days longer than it was in 1984, and the average number of acres burned annually has doubled, too, to about 7 million. That number could double again by 2050, according to Forest Service scientists.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service spent about 15 percent of its annual budget fighting wildfires two decades ago. Today, it's 40 percent.

"Even with that, most years we have to borrow in order to continue fighting fires," Bonnie said, adding last year's borrowing added up to $500 million. "I'm on a bit of a crusade about this issue."

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of lawmakers would like to change the way the federal government pays to fight these fires and create a new emergency fund that the Forest Service can draw on as needed.

Most of the nation's headline-grabbing wildfires burn out West, though a 2009 Horry County blaze - the most destructive in South Carolina's history - claimed 19,500 acres and 76 homes, and forced more than 4,000 residents to evacuate.

"The fire issue doesn't just affect Montana and the West," Bonnie said. "It affects here because those resources, that borrowing, affects resources like the Francis Marion (National Forest) that has fire issues, but they're different fire issues."

A fire-related budget squeeze almost scuttled a 3,000-acre conservation deal outside Charleston in 2003, said Mark Robertson, executive director of The Nature Conservancy's South Carolina chapter. It took last-minute help from then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings to restore the money so the agency could buy the International Paper Wando tract.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service also has not had the money to restore Tibwin, a historic plantation home that it owns outside McClellanville. "They have no choice but to try to stabilize it and watch it gently decay into the ground," Robertson said. "They have no money to restore one of the most historic houses in Charleston County."

It also has affected the state's ability to contract with private property owners to do controlled burns on their properties and lengthened the agency's backlog in reviewing projects.

"Yes, we have significant budget challenges in Washington we have to deal with," Bonnie said. "The point here is that the Forest Service's challenge is enhanced by the fact we've been taxed by this growing fire challenge that we've had over the past several decades. It's hampered the ability of the agency to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with fire."

Bonnie said he also hoped Congress would restore full funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would help South Carolina build on its conservation successes, such as the recent purchase of 2,241 acres of the Fairlawn property next to the Francis Marion National Forest.

The fund was set up to receive a slice of the nation's $20 billion in royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling, and Bonnie said full funding - which has been granted for only two years in the fund's 50-year history - would be $900 million.

Two South Carolina Republicans, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, have supported the move.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.