State Forester Gene Kodama watched glumly as firefighters struggled to keep three 1970s-era pumpers working this past summer near Conway.
S.C. Forestry Commission staffers had just contained a 140-acre blaze, but without reliable equipment to keep the forest floor wet, a sizable woods fire could rekindle and send smoke billowing across busy highways.
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On that scorching day in mid-July, not all of the three water-spraying vehicles worked at the same time.
“It hurts my heart to see that,’’ Kodama said. “I pull up to rally the troops, and they’re working on these ancient pieces of equipment to try to keep smoke off the highways to prevent injuries and accidents.”
Luckily, the fire did not blaze up. But Kodama said the lack of equipment and manpower will eventually cost South Carolina in lost lives and property damage.
Two years ago, the commission’s allotment from the state was $18 million. Today, the Forestry Commission gets $9.8 million, records show.
State efforts to cut agencies’ budgets by encouraging retirements and offering incentives have left Kodama with 100 vacancies, he said.
Also because of budget cuts, the agency has been forced to abandon a regular equipment replacement schedule, even though it has 77 pieces of equipment that are at least 15 years old, according to the commission’s 2011-2012 budget plan.
Kodama says it’s important to resolve these financial challenges to protect lives and the state’s forest economy. The forest products industry is a major employer, which contributes some $14 billion to the state’s economy annually.
Kodama said his agency successfully fought a record wildfire in 2009, which torched 19,000 acres and private homes near Myrtle Beach — but only because major fires had not broken out in other parts of the state. As a result, the Forestry Commission was able to send its most experienced firefighters and reliable equipment to the Myrtle Beach area. Without such luck, fighting the fire would have been difficult, he said.
Now, however, Kodama said, he has 32 fewer people to fight blazes on the front lines.
“We are at a horribly low level in the ability to protect the forests of South Carolina and the homes and lives of people who live around the forests,’’ he said.
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips