By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Two weeks after a judge ruled that wildlife in the maritime forest does not pose an immediate threat to residents, a few dozen residents gathered at Sullivan’s Island Town Hall to hear what type of threat wildfire might pose.
Drake Carroll, a South Carolina Forestry Commission Firewise Coordinator, was the star speaker at a Nov. 23, 2015 special meeting of Sullivan’s Island town council. Firewise is a program started by the federal government in 1986 to educate homeowners living in the urban interface (the zone between unoccupied land and developed land) about how to protect their property from wildfire.
The Firewise program recommends all homeowners who live near “wildland” (undeveloped land with flammable fuels) maintain between 30 and 200 feet of “defensible space” between their home and the wild land. The exact distance recommended depends on a variety of factors, including fuel type and topography.
Earlier that day, Carroll had toured the forest situated on the town-owned accreted land to get a feel for that fuel type and topography. Following the tour, his professional recommendation was that 30 feet of defensible space (such as manicured green lawn) between the home and the land was acceptable, followed by 60 feet of mitigation (reducing the fuel load on the ground and trimming the trees from the bottoms up to three to four feet, to prevent a fire starting on the forest floor from rising into the trees).
“Everywhere you have structures if you can reach that 30 feet you’d be pretty good,” Carroll said. “Where the wax myrtles are 30 feet out you might want to bump it out a bit. Once you get [beyond] about 60 feet, you aren’t going to get much radiant heat. You’re not going to get damage off a structure from a fire 60 feet away.”
“I saw a lot of wax myrtles out there, some were 20 feet plus, personally if I owned the whole property I would knock those back 60 feet [from the structure]. But you’ve got enough defensible space like it is,” he said.
Wax myrtles were given a lot of attention by Carroll, as it is the only one of five “volatile fuels” the SCFC has identified as risk factors for increased chances of spread of wildfire present in the maritime forest. While wax myrtles are not more likely to burn, when they do, they burn quickly and with extreme heat that can radiate a good distance.
Carroll assured attendees that the components of Sullivan’s Island’s maritime forest were not inclined to a dangerous crown fire because it was predominantly oak and not pine. However, he didn’t recommend the removal of pines.
“I would leave the pines and let them become mature trees because they represent the coastal ecosystem more so than the wax myrtles.”
Carroll pointed out that the town’s current plan of trimming the wax myrtles down to 5 feet was actually increasing the fire hazard. Instead, he suggested letting them naturally grow up top and trim from below.
“Cutting them is not good,” he said. “If you cut and prune a wax myrtle all it’s going to do is make two sprout out where you cut one, making it bush out and get thicker and therefore more dangerous [if it were to catch fire].”
The hour long meeting included substantial discussion about the hazard of a wildfire and the likelihood of homes on Sullivan’s Island catching fire should one start.
Following the meeting, The Island Eye News asked Carroll about the likelihood of a forest fire starting on Sullivan’s Island.
Carroll generated a fire risk plan for a one mile buffer around the island using SCFC software, the complete report can be viewed here. The report and Carroll, concluded that the risk of a forest fire on Sullivan’s Island is very low. “Maritime forests aren’t really on our hotspot list,” Carroll said.
“You don’t want to say there’s no risk at all, there is potential on Sullivan’s Island, but it’s not high.”
The report identified the areas of wild land urban interface on the island as being predominantly in the accreted land. It showed a moderate to high potential impact of a wildfire on people and their homes in that area, but a low to non-existent probability of burning occurring in the accreted land, based on landscape conditions, weather, historical ignition patterns and historical fire prevention and suppression efforts. Having walked around many of the properties on the island, Carroll’s concern for fire risk was more regarding the shrubs, bushes and wooden decking people have up against their homes, than the forest between them and the ocean.
According to Carroll the risk for wildfire on the island is only from human causes; lighting, a typical starter of wildfire, is a non-factor.
“The other possibility would be a spark from a wildfire across the causeway in Mount Pleasant,” he said. “It would take a perfect storm to have a fire on Sullivan’s Island, it’s not a high risk.”
However there is a risk and, as some attendees at the meeting pointed out, surely no forest would mean no fire risk?
“In a perfect world, if you own the land and had unlimited funds and you could clear to 200 feet that would be good, clear it all the way to the ocean and it would be great.” he said. “Our recommendation is 30 feet. The 100 feet to 200 feet (mentioned in the NFPA brochure) is if you live up a steep slope, fire travels uphill, which is not a problem you have here. A lot of those standards were set for out West.”
In the interview following the meeting, Carroll clarified his statement. “[The audience] seemed to want me to say, clear everything 200 feet out, but that’s not the gist of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to say you guys are fine with 30 to 60 feet … Beyond that you’re no longer dealing with a fire hazard, it’s more aspect or personal preference. From a fire-only standpoint, trees 100 to 200 feet out is not a factor,” he said. “If we were fighting a fire 200 feet away from the homes on Sullivan’s Island we wouldn’t even worry about the structures because it is a non-factor.”