Originally created 06/29/02

Dry spell troubles foresters



Normally, Steve Abbott would already be out West helping fight the area's unprecedented forest fires.

Mr. Abbott, the chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission's Harlem office, would probably be joined by at least a few South Carolina Forestry officials, too.

But this summer, things are different.

After four years of drought, local officials have become concerned about dry conditions here.

"We were told not to let anyone go until we got some good rain and the drought index got below 500," Mr. Abbott said.

This week, the index in the Augusta area on the Georgia side fell slightly below the 500 mark because of a few weekend showers, Mr. Abbott said. Mr. Abbott is the only Georgia Forestry firefighter from the Augusta area now scheduled to go out West.

"We certainly don't want to deplete our own resources," he said.

His exact destination hasn't been set, but he should leave within the next week.

In South Carolina, the situation is even worse.

Along with the drought problem, forestry officials say they're dealing with fewer personnel because of budget cuts and a record-breaking infestation of Southern pine beetles.

Ken Cabe, public information officer for the South Carolina Forestry Commission in Columbia, said there are no plans to send any South Carolina firefighters out West.

"This is the most serious Southern pine beetle outbreak on record in South Carolina," he said.

He said the drought conditions have hit the Upstate region of South Carolina hardest. Areas near Augusta remain dry, but they are not considered a fire hazard because of the latest rains, he said.

Recently, a large forest fire broke out near Myrtle Beach. Mr. Cabe said rain helped extinguish it and helped with the dry conditions.

"We're better off now than we were a week ago," he said. "But we're still having to be cautious."

One of the biggest problems, he said, has been having fewer firefighters this year.

"We have sent people out West before when it was dry, but we had a full amount of firefighters back at home," he said.

Within the past year, about 100 positions have been cut at the South Carolina Forestry, Mr. Cabe said, and many of those were firefighters.

Mr. Cabe said he and many other firefighters would like to help those in the West. But he knows the threat back home is too great.

"We've certainly got a lot of guys ready and happy to go," he said. "But we recognize our first responsibility is to South Carolina."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904.



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