Crime & Courts

Columbia thieves steal crucial disaster life-saving equipment

Sophisticated thieves pilfered some $100,000 of emergency response equipment from the S.C. Forestry Commission’s main maintenance and storage area in Columbia sometime during the Christmas break, officials said Thursday.

Missing items include critical equipment the agency needs for emergency response, said commission spokesman Scott Hawkins.

“Many of the items are things our Incident Management Team must have to respond to large-scale disasters, such as the bigger wildfires and hurricanes,” he said.

“This was not a happy Christmas for us,” Hawkins said.

Among the items taken were 13 Dell laptops, two all-terrain vehicles equipped for law enforcement and firefighting duties, various tools and a Ford F350 diesel flatbed truck adorned with the agency’s logo.

“While we remain prepared to protect South Carolinians during the upcoming wildfire season, our ability to mobilize for large-scale disasters is greatly hindered because of the gear they chose to steal,” Hawkins said, adding much of it was acquired with federal Homeland Security grants and won’t be replaced easily.

Intruders entered the Forestry Commission’s complex by cutting through a locked gate, Hawkins said.

The theft was discovered Monday, two days after Christmas, when a supervisor went to get a piece of equipment at the shop complex at 5500 Broad River Road.

Since the shop complex is back from the road and not generally glimpsed by the public, the burglars didn’t just break in by chance, Hawkins said.

“This wasn’t random; this was something well-planned,” he said. “I would stop short of calling it an inside job, but whoever did it knew what they were doing and knew the place.”

“It’s very likely the person who did this had been on the premises a time or two. They selected a time, and knew the place well enough to get in and get most of gear.”

The Forestry Commissions’ law enforcement division, Columbia Police, Richland County Sheriff’s Department and SLED are investigating.

Anyone with information is urged to contact their local police department or the Forestry Commission at 1-800-777-FIRE (3473).

“This is a crime not just against our agency, but against the citizens of South Carolina” Hawkins says.

The theft is just the latest blow to the cash-strapped agency. Staff has been concerned for a number of years now about the impact state budget cuts have had on personnel and equipment. Dwindling state funds have whittled the agency’s budget down by 46 percent — $8 million over the last three years.