After action report released on South Carolina’s Highway 31 fire

Highway 31 fire after action report

The South Carolina Forestry Commission has released their after action report on the Highway 31 fire that started on April 22, 2009 near Myrtle Beach. Among the 63 issues and 76 recommendations, it unsurprisingly lists communications as one of the primary issues. I don’t think I have ever seen an after action report on a major fire that did not identify communications as a problem. Wildfire Today covered the fire here.

Here is an excerpt from the executive summary:


The Forestry Commission was requested by Horry County Fire-Rescue to respond to a small wildfire just after noon on April 22, 2009. The fire grew rapidly over the next 36 hours, and ultimately burned 19,130 acres, destroyed 76 homes, damaged 97 additional homes, and caused two firefighters to deploy fire shelters and three firefighters to retreat to a safety zone to avoid serious injuries. The extreme behavior led to the evacuation of more than 2,500 residents before it was declared controlled on May 20. Agency expenditures related to the Highway 31 Fire totaled approximately $1.5 million. Estimated losses to insured property exceeded $25 million, and damage to timber is estimated at approximately $17 million.

The Highway 31 Fire was the worst wildland-urban interface fire in the history of the state, and represents the largest mobilization of SCFC resources to a wildfire on record. The rapid rate of spread and extreme fire behavior of this fire presented many challenges to the agency, and this review has identified 63 issues and 76 recommendations to address them. The key findings of this report include:

  • Interoperable communication with other responding agencies is crucial. The SCFC should ensure that agency firefighters have direct communication with fire departments, law enforcement agencies, military assets, and other public safety agencies that may respond to wildfires.
  • Annual exercises should be conducted in Horry County and other counties in the state where the potential for large fires exists. These exercises should test the interoperability of communications equipment, establishment of unified command, information sharing, and public notification of threats from rapidly moving wildfires.
  • The Forestry Commission should continue the development of qualified incident management teams. Additional training and experience are needed in many functional areas, including operations, plans, finance, logistics, public information, and safety.
  • Scarcity of personnel or firefighting equipment did not directly impede the Forestry Commission’s response to the Highway 31 Fire, because it was the only large wildfire occurring near populated areas at the time. In the future, a lack of equipment replacement funding, the loss of experienced personnel due to budget reductions, and the difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified personnel could have serious impacts on the agency’s response capability. The occurrence of multiple large fires will easily exceed Forestry Commission response capacity and likely result in major loss of homes, forest assets, and possibly lives.

Highway 31 fire at highway

(the photos are from the report)

UPDATE March 11, 2010:

The North Myrtle Beach City Council at their meeting last week discussed, in response to this fire, budgeting to add a brush truck and a ladder truck to their fire department. Right. You can never have too many ladder trucks at a vegetation fire.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.