Bluffton firefighters give gift of service during Florence

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Bluffton Township Fire Department personnel waded through flood waters to save this dog in Horry County after Hurricane Florence hit the area. A dozen local firefighters spent two weeks helping man fire stations in the county. COURTESY BLUFFTON TOWNSHIP F

"A lot of water."

That was Donald Bach's first impression when he arrived in Conway in September. The Bluffton Township Fire Department captain led a group of BTFD volunteers to northern South Carolina to provide support and assistance to the area's fire departments during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

"There was water everywhere, from the city of Conway all the way out to the rural areas," Bach said. It made fighting fires a challenge for local as well as visiting support firefighters.

"The people coming in to work, it was taking them four hours, when it would normally take them only 45 minutes to an hour, because of the roads that were closed due to flooding," Bach said.

Between Sept. 17 and Oct. 3, a dozen BTFD firefighters volunteered to help man the 40 fire stations in Horry County alone. Between local crews and outside resources of paid and volunteer emergency responders, they succeeded in staffing each station with one ambulance and one engine.

At the same time, Derek Franks, also a BTFD captain, led a combined team of 25 Bluffton and Hilton Head rescue specialists to the Marion and Myrtle Beach area. They operate as part of the South Carolina Emergency Response Task Force.

Franks's first impression was that they witnessed multiple water events.

"When we went to the city of Marion, every street we went into was flooded," he said. "Well, five hours later that water receded. That's flash flooding. A couple days later the roads became flooded because the river was flooding with the water coming down from North Carolina."

The most weather that Beaufort County experienced from Florence was some rain and breezes, yet local first responders made the journey to spend several days without showers and subsist on a diet of pre-packaged meals while performing 330 water rescues, fighting two fires and responding to a number of medical calls.

"We went through Matthew and we had a ton of resources down here. There's a big thing in the fire service called the brotherhood and sisterhood, and you go and help somebody," said Bach. "We do it every day, but when the call comes out from another agency or another department, you just go because you know they'd do exactly the same thing for you."

Franks said everybody wanted to get out and help.

"At the same time, we train in this whether here or in Columbia, and it's nice to put it into real world and at the same time do some good," he said.

BTFD Chief John Thompson said he had received no requests and there are no plans at the moment to send Bluffton firefighters to aid in Florida's recovery efforts from Hurricane Michael, but if someone is deployed, it might be Capt. Emerson Kovalanchik.

"He is very active in South Carolina's Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and is a member of the South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team," said Thompson. "The [National] Guard provides the helicopters and pilots while the fire service provides rescue swimmers."

As a member of SCHART, Kovalanchik receives his training through the state, collaborating with the South Carolina National Guard. Thompson added that SCHART can also be deployed into wooded areas where ground transport would be difficult and time intensive.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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