Bluffton Township Wildland Crew Specializes in Mitigating brush and wildfires
June 28, 2023
Written by Vickie McIntyre Photography by Rob Kaufman
While hurricanes tend to be foremost on people’s minds this time of year, Firefighter Matt Henne, who’s in charge of the Bluffton Township Fire District’s 24-member Wildland Fire Crew, hopes you’ll also pay attention to the risks of brush, grass and forest fires erupting in our area.
Henne, who grew up in Southern California, got his start as a reserve firefighter with Orange County while attending community college as he “waited his turn to get into the fire academy.” After graduating from the academy, he relocated to the Lowcountry in 2000.
“I caught wind that Bluffton (Fire District) was hiring,” Henne says, “and had my interview the same day I turned in my application.” By 2007, Henne, along with Battalion Chief Derek Franks and now retired Captain Richard Dollahan, were instrumental in forming the specialized team known as the Wildland Fire Crew. It is a resource committed to mitigating brush and wildfires in the Bluffton area as well as providing aid to other crews throughout the state and country.
“With the growth of the jurisdiction, we were getting more calls than usual,” Henne recalls, adding, “We got a grant that provided the initial training and opened the door to create a team.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Savannah Refuge partners with the Wildland team by providing equipment like their brush truck, supervising the team’s certification process, and determining where the team can be of assistance, which often involves deployment to prescribed burns ranging in size from a few acres to several hundred.
“Not all fires are bad,” says Henne. “Controlled burns reduce the fuel load, making it easier to manage a fire should one erupt, and it makes the forest healthier.” Whether it’s a local community like Palmetto Bluff or the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge that needs assistance, the Wildland Team is ready to help.
“We’re extra troops on the ground, and it helps with our training so when we do get burns in Bluffton, we’re comfortable with them and can fight them safely,” said Henne, adding that assistance includes everything from providing weather reports to running engines and lighting backfires.
Training and Certification Bluffton has nine fire stations in the township, with plans for four more to be built in the next 10 years. Under that umbrella, several specialized departments exist, including Urban Search & Rescue, Hazmat, Honor Guard, South Carolina Task Force 4 and the Wildland Fire Team.
All Wildland crew members are regular firefighters who have completed their first year and passed the requisite standards assessment. Each is also EMT, EMT Advanced or Paramedic certified. Most cite a love of the outdoors as the reason they volunteered for the specialized training, and no one complains about the monthly training exercises known as “field days.”
“One of our team members has a property and they let us use it as our playground,” Henne smiles. “We spend time out there going over hand tools and learning how to gather weather conditions without using our phones because wind, dew point and relative humidity all affect the behavior of fire.”
Each training activity includes a medical incident, so everyone becomes comfortable calling in dispatches, relaying coordinates, and requesting necessary supplies. Bonding and teamwork are also stressed.
Crew hikes, done in complete gear, might be an exercise in helping out the community, like their efforts to cut down fallen trees after Hurricane Matthew or a fun, physical contest of endurance, whereby drawing from a deck of cards determines if 10 push-ups are required or a five-minute sprint will ensue.
Mikayla Blanton, one of the women on the Wildland crew, says, “What I find most rewarding about being part of the team is seeing the final product come together. It is quite amazing to see how much can get accomplished when the team comes together, and everyone does their part.”
Ready For Action Bluffton’s firefighters are on duty for 24 hours, then off duty for 48 hours, though anyone can be called into service if a situation warrants it. Most services are local, but members have been deployed throughout the state, such as during the Table Rock Fire in 2021, and out of state, as they did for the 2018 Silver Creek fire in Colorado. Two engine crews, each consisting of three or four personnel, respond to calls, while the first-arriving officer can request back-up or extra equipment such as a water tender or the military razor which can access more remote locations.
Recalling a fire near Hidden Lakes that started when a campfire sent embers into the trees, and the Independence Day fire near Lemon Island, started by illegal fireworks, that shut down S.C. 170, the Wildland crew isn’t surprised that the South Carolina Forestry Commission states 98 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans.
To mitigate the risk of fires spreading into communities, the Wildland team recently participated in Community Wildlands Prevention Day, a national effort to instruct homeowners about creating fire-protective barriers around their properties, emphasizing things like clearing debris away from homes, removing pine needles from gutters, and installing screens to prevent sparks from entering attics.
Henne also cautions homeowners to follow the rules and regulations regarding debris burning, as it’s the No. 1 cause of brush fires.
Passion and Purpose Asked where his passion comes from, Henne responds: “I don’t want to see a Highway 31 Fire in our area,” a reference to a small debris fire east of Conway, S.C., in 2009 that eventually destroyed 76 homes across Horry County, causing $25 million in property damage and $17 million in agricultural damage. To that end Henne is constantly working with the public as well as government agencies and environmental organizations to reduce the threat of wildfires.