Fire on the Water

By Tom Neale, 5/14/2009


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

Fire on the ICW

Recently many were mesmerized by reports, some hysterical, of a runaway brush fire sweeping down on the ICW. The ICW section involved was in South Carolina, in the North Myrtle Beach area. The ICW here is a very narrow dredged blasted canal, some even blasted from rock. Much of it has rock on the bottom and on the sides. Until recently its banks were mostly unsettled because the term “waterfront property” was less likely to apply to land facing a ditch. But things changed, and extravagant mansions now line banks that were formerly wooded. Bridges have been and are being built at a frantic rate, at cost of billions, to spare rushed citizens a few miles of driving. Most of the news media focused on the threat to the mansions and other homes. Little was said about the ICW except that it was hoped that the narrow ribbon of water would provide a barrier.

The USCG Captain of the Port in Charleston wisely closed the ICW until passage was deemed to be safe and smoke had cleared. ICW travelers were very lucky to have several marinas at the north end of the affected area where they could wait as well as a few marinas not too far from the south end, and many anchorages in that area on the Waccamaw River. Some sections of the ICW offer no place to safely stop if there is a blockage, necessitating boaters proceed on in the dark.  This is normally not prudent for most pleasure boats on the ICW because of things like logs and other debris (twice in this area we’ve seen sections of docks floating in the narrow channel), trees snagged on the bottom, slanting upwards at an angle perfect for holing boats, (we saw at least one of these in the Waccamaw a few days earlier) and the ever present shoaling. We had recently passed through and were dealing with the same strong westerly winds which were fanning the flames, but we were, at the time of the fire, well to the north in open waters where you can change course without running aground. We breathed a sigh of relief that we were past that section. Traveling the ICW always has that issue. You want to and indeed should stop to smell the roses, but when you do, you always wonder what bridge is going to break in the closed position ahead, or what accident or other occurrence will stop traffic for days. And unlike traveling on the interstate, there are seldom detour routes available.  There is always the ocean, but there may not be a safe inlet where you are, and the ocean at times, as we all know, can be dangerous or, at best, very uncomfortable.

Warnings were flying from some sources, implying that the North Myrtle Beach Fire was the most unexpected and unimaginable of horrors. It could well have been a horror for anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, fire danger while traveling the ICW and other confined waters isn’t a new hazard at all and should be part of what we prepare for. We all know (hopefully) of the danger of fire aboard, but it’s easy, while on a boat, to think that you don’t have to be concerned with fire ashore.

A few years back we’d reached one of our favorite anchorages after a long and difficult day and settled in for the evening, secure in the knowledge that the bottom had good holding.  But soon thereafter we learned from watching the local evening news on TV that the smoke we’d been seeing to the south, and which we’d asked about earlier as we passed through a bridge, was actually an out-of-control fire threatening, yes, the ICW where we were anchored and some mansions belonging to some very famous people. Some bureaucrats and park attendants had decided to conduct a “controlled burn” despite a long standing forecast of strong westerly wind. The burn had gotten out of hand and was anything but controlled. It isn’t unusual to see smoke as you travel, from many sources. So we hadn’t been alarmed at first. But we quickly became alarmed when we saw the aerial shots of where the fire was and what it was doing. It was a tense night as we wondered whether the wind would change and send the fire to the shores upwind of us. We would have had to backtrack north in the dark in some very difficult waters in order to avoid raining fiery embers.  I wrote about this in the 47th of these columns entitled “Wind and Fire” which you can find at .

We’ve had many other encounters with fire ashore while we were on the water. Once our visibility was reduced to near zero because of smoke from large fires to the west. The odd thing about this was that we were miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.  To make matters worse, we were in the approaches to the large seaport and naval base of Jacksonville, Florida and warships were engaged in maneuvers in the area. The smoke had been carried by the winds far to sea because the fires were so big and there was so much smoke. We’ve been in the Abacos out in the Bahamas and seen and smelled smoke from the US. There was no danger there, but there was that reminder. That same year, however, there were wildly burning brush fires in the Abacos, and blowing embers threatened some nearby boats. You can’t count on anything for sure when you’re on the water—except that the unexpected can happen and ordinary expectations, such as “you’re safe from forest fires when you’re out on the water” don’t always work.

There are many places on the water where shoreside fire can be a concern. Obviously any narrow body of water in which you can only go one direction or the opposite is vulnerable. If there are woods or weeds or brush on the shores, the likelihood of having a problem at some time increases. There are many such areas, and here are but a few examples. The beautiful Alligator River-Pungo River Canal in North Carolina is one. This stretch is around 20 miles long. It’s a narrow canal through what is mostly swamp. While the wet stuff on the ground isn’t likely to burn, the trees can, particularly in the dry season and when there are prolonged periods of high pressure, very low humidity and winds. The humidity at the time of the North Myrtle Beach fire was around 30 to 35 percent.

Tom’s Tips for Fire on the Water

1. We’ve developed a habit of turning on the TV when we’re in range of a local station or the satellite TV (when it is working) and checking briefly the morning, noon and evening local news on a local channel.

Click Here for More Tips

Another prime fire danger area could be the narrow long stretch of the ICW running from just north of Charleston SC to the Santee Rivers and then just north of that. Some of this, particularly near Charleston, is fairly built up with homes and, hopefully, less subject to wild fire. But some of this area runs through the Francis Marion National Forest Recreation Area. And there’s a narrow dredged section north of the Little River Inlet area (in SC) and one just south of Southport (in NC). There are also miles and miles of marsh here. In Florida there are many narrow canal-like sections of the ICW. Most of these are densely populated, as in the area from Jupiter Inlet down to Miami. But some, such as the canals through Palm Valley and Palm Coast, while still populated, have ample brush, marsh grass and trees to burn.

When I see an area of smoke ashore, I want to think, “Oh, it’s probably a factory, nuclear power plant or paper mill.” There are plenty of those, billowing smoke, or steam which looks like smoke, up into the air. But this only adds to the false sense of security. The North Myrtle Beach fire reminds me, yet again, that on the water we’ve got to be prepared for just about anything, including wild fires ashore.


Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale