Forestry firefighters statewide are getting safer tractors beginning next month.
Wednesday at the Statehouse, the State Forestry Commission and Gov. Haley got to show off new firefighting bulldozers to replace more dangerous-open cab tractors that are outdated.
State Forestor Gene Kodama has been pushing for safer equipment since the Legislature stopped updating vehicles because of budget cuts.
“Today is historic because it’s the first time that South Carolina will have a bulldozer with an enclosed cab on it. This cab will be one of those that will protect operators in case a fire gets too close to them or there’s a burn-over where they cannot escape as has happened multiple times,” Kodama said.
Firefighter Terry Cook experienced this danger firsthand when her open tractor bogged down in Horry County in the worst wildfire in the state’s history. She had to pull a fireproof blanket over her and wait.
“The men and women that run these tractors on a daily basis breathe dust, smoke, get real close to fires, get your hair singed off of you. These open-cab tractors can be a death trap,” Cook told reporters.
Last July, seven aging Forestry Commission units broke down in different locations on the same day working in the Pee Dee region.
Fleet Manager Doug Mills said the new tractor, trailer truck and plow attachment cost about $250,000 each. He hopes that 10 will be purchased in the upcoming budget.
He described the new dozers: “Before, all you had was the mesh screening around you. This time you have the tempered glass. You don’t want to get a little closer, but you can feel a little more comfortable, the heat isn’t as bad. You have air conditioning to keep you cool. The HEPA filtration, you keep the smoke off of you. I’ve been in fires myself in these bulldozers where you just take a deep breath and hope you get to the other side of the smoke.”
Two of these closed cab units will be sent to each region of the state. The commission says it will take years to replace the units and bring the fleet to a level of 170 dependable tractors, which are supposed to be replaced every 15 years.
Chesterfield Representative Ted Vick said the Legislature has agreed on more reliable funding for needed equipment in bill H.4082, which takes money from insurance premium taxes to provide about $15 million over the next five years.
“Back in 1996, we actually had a bond bill and they bought a ton of these vehicles, the 1996 model. But what the funding source we identified does is it puts the money in every year so that all your tractors don’t get old at one time and don’t have to be replaced at one time. It’s a more responsible way of funding,” Vick said.
Governor Haley praised Kodama for continuing to fight for these closed-cab units. She also took a dig at the Legislature:
“When it comes to the lives of these people who walk out the door every day without giving it a second thought, we need to put our money where our mouth is. We need to start saying, ‘This is what matters.’ Pet projects don’t matter. None of these other things that the General Assembly may be considering matter. This matters.” Haley said.