Protecting your house from fire


A local couple never dreamed their waterfront home and everything in it would go up in flames.

Their house fire started in the early evening, and three hours later their Wando home was a total loss.

Despite overwhelming assistance from big city departments, there were many obstacles in the fight to contain the fire.

Now neighbors are recommending we all should be involved when it comes to protecting your home from fire.

“She jumped up on the burning porch and I went over and got her,” Debbie Graf told neighbors the night her home went up in flames. She had just rescued one of the three pet cats in their home..

“I heard this popping, pop, pop,” said Bob Graf who described what he heard the evening the fire started.

He was home alone, and saw smoke in the stairwell.

“Fire trucks got here pretty quickly,” he said.

But his neighbor, Bobby Riggs, said, “The first truck to pull in, blocked any access to the front of the house.”

“The first one kind of shot water over the trees and some of the water was getting on the house,” Bob Graf said.

Then, there was no water.

“I guess it was in a truck that ran out,” Graf said.

According to the written report from the Charleston City Fire Department, a fire truck couldn’t get close to the home.

Another portion of the report indicated a fire tender had run out of water, and had broken down.

“They didn’t go inside and fight the fire from inside because they had no water,” Riggs explained.

According to the fire report, there were no hydrants in the area.

Firefighters say the trucks found a good source of water, shuttling from a hydrant over a mile away.

As the home continued to burn, the homeowners found the fire overwhelming.

“It was very hard to watch it,” said Debbie Graf.

“We thought the water would be fine because we have water everywhere,” her husband added.

Firefighters thought so too.

According to the firefighters’ report, firefighters were hoping fire boats could supply water from the Wando River.

But the old bridge at Highway 41 was closed, keeping fire boats from the scene.

Even though the Wando River was only 50 feet from the home, no water came from that direction to fight the fire.

“And to call on a rural area like this and not have that capability is unacceptable,” Riggs said.

While fire trucks stacked up on Highway 41, firefighters tried pulling water from two ponds close to the home.

But that didn’t work, either.

When a neighbor used his excavator to dig a trench from his pond, firefighters reported they used floating pumps brought by Isle of Palms firefighters.

The property where the home stood was is in Berkeley County, the Cainhoy Rural Fire Department’s responsibility, although a few steps down the road is the City of Charleston’s jurisdiction. The city fire department sent almost four dozen firefighters, and at least six Berkeley county rural fire departments responded along with firefighters from other area departments.

But manpower doesn’t help if firefighters can’t get to the fire.

“There are roads where I cannot get a fire truck down,” said Whitesville Fire Chief Timothy Stephenson. His department didn’t respond to the Wando fire, but he faces the same challenges.

A phone app helps him locate fire hydrants and see where firefighters will have to supply water.

Growth is pushing people of out of city limits to more distant rural areas, so response time is also a factor.

If a big home on the Intracoastal Waterway catches fire, the Awendaw-McClellanville fire trucks would fill at Buck Hall Landing.

“There are no hydrants in the area,” said Battalion Chief Mike Bowers.

In McClellanville, old hydrants no longer function, so trucks refill at a pond off Graham Farm Road.

“This is what we used for the Palmetto Store when it caught on fire,” said Chief Bowers.

70 percent of fire departments in South Carolina are rural, according to the South Carolina Firefighters Association.

There are 26 different fire districts in Berkeley County.

“A lot of those districts are changing, they’re developing,” said Dan Barb, head of Emergency Services in Berkeley County.

People who live there see the explosive growth, and want service stepped up. Experts say what you do counts.

“Call 911. Don’t delay because it may cost you your life,” said Chief Stephenson.

And prepare.

A new neighborhood near Awendaw has dry hydrants, pipes that help firefighters draw water from a pond or lake.

The Wando neighbors have decided to put one in too.

“You’d better take a look at your community and see where your ponds are, and see about investing in dry hydrants,” Riggs said.

Since the Wando fire, the Charleston City Fire Department began developing guidelines for the installation of dry hydrants, a homeowner’s expense.

The firefighters encourage us all to do our best to keep fires from starting in the first place.

No matter where you live, experts say install smoke detectors especially in all bedrooms.

Consider an alarm system which automatically calls the fire department.

Add fire sprinklers, if possible.

Practice home escape plans, and clearly mark your home address with reflective numbers. And contact your local fire department if you’re concerned about locating the closest fire hydrant or water source.

It’s important to note, Berkeley County has just finished a study of its fire service.

County Council called for that long before the Wando fire.

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