On a February Saturday night, 44-year-old Reggie Shields tended to a fire built inside of a split oil drum, and fueled by wood from a dead tree on family land along Little River Neck Road.
Next to the fire, collard greens and mustard greens were growing in a small garden covered with ash that got a second life as fertilizer.
“We got water here, we got water there,” Shields said, pointing at faucets. “We make sure it don’t go nowhere. We don’t leave it unattended.”
Little River Neck Road is full of donut holes, which are pockets of unincorporated county land within North Myrtle Beach city limits.
The family land on Oyster Lane where Shields tended the fire is in one of those donut holes, and Shields said the family burns debris almost every night, and sometimes trash as well.
“We try to burn every day and definitely on the weekend,” he said. “Whatever is dry, whatever’s handy. It’s to clean out the area and have something to do other than being out on the road. We’ve got a grill. You can take this grill right here and put it on top and we’ll cook on it.”
Co-existing with the mobile homes that dot the road are big developments like Charleston Landing and the gated community of Tidewater Plantation.
“In Tidewater we have 1,100 units. That’s roughly, call it 2,200, 2,500 people,” said Cathy Weis, president of the Tidewater Plantation Community Association. “That’s just Tidewater.”
There are thousands of acres in the Little River Neck area filled with pine trees and pine straw. There’s only one road in and out of The Neck, and residents in communities like Tidewater are concerned about what would happen if there was a fire.
Weis recounted a recent accident on the road which she said backed up traffic for hours.
“People sat for two-and-a-half, three hours, in their cars because they couldn’t get past with the emergency equipment and all that,” Weis said. “So that’s an example of how difficult it is to get out of here and if we had a wildfire, it would really be a scary thing.”
A recent attempt at a burn ban for the area failed when county attorney Arrigo Carotti said it was unconstitutional to give one area special treatment.
But District 1 Horry County councilman Harold Worley is still looking for a way to implement a burn ban in the area.
“It’s nothing but a tinder box of pine,” Worley said. “That’s fire. That’s a tinder box, and that’s what gets it going. If we were to have a fire on the north end of Little River Neck and we had a wind out of the northeast – and we get them all the time – it would literally wipe out anything in Little River Neck, probably up to the crossroads, up to Sea Mountain Highway.”
A county staff committee has been working to draft a resolution creating a set of criteria that Horry County Council could apply to certain areas in order to designate them as “high risk” and restrict burning, Worley said, adding that the criteria could include geography, population density and abundance of fuel.
And the idea could pass legal muster because it could be equally applied to other areas in the county, not just Little River Neck. Worley stressed that any resolution would not be a blanket ban for the whole county, and would not affect farmers who need to burn their fields.
“I want to be real careful that as we go through this, that criteria is not so prohibitive just for Little River Neck,” Worley said. “I want Tyler (Servant) to be able to use it in his district or Gary Loftus in his district. But yet at the same time we don’t want it to become a nuisance ordinance or a political ordinance. It’s going to have to follow this criteria and if it doesn’t meet so many of them, then it won’t happen.”
But a burn ban in Little River Neck would affect poorer folks' way of life, and pits county residents like Shields against city residents like Weis.
Burning trash is already illegal, but that doesn’t stop residents in The Neck from burning trash, and other organic matter that they’re legally allowed to burn.
“A lot of people are concerned, well what are those people going to do with their trash because they don’t get trash pickup?” Weis said. “Well, there’s a dump about three miles away, that’s not very far. You can’t tell me these people don’t have vehicles because most of them are parked in their yards.”
The Solid Waste Authority has two dozen recycling centers that dot Horry County, including two near North Myrtle. But for some residents, transportation is indeed an issue.
“A lot of people here don’t have no cars,” Shields said. “They don’t have nowhere to dump their trash. A lot of people don’t have no way to take care of their trash.”
Shields’ and his girlfriend Miranda Kaisk, who lives in North Myrtle Beach but used to live on The Neck, said there used to be several dumpsters in the area, but they were removed about 10 years ago.
“They had four dumpsters and they took them out,” Kaisk said. “They were county dumpsters.”
Keeping things clean isn’t an issue for city residents, who have garbage trucks that pick up their trash on a weekly basis.
“The people that are keeping Tidewater cleaned up, most likely a lot of them live over here,” Shields said. “A lot of the guys at the Tidewater golf course, they live right here.”
Kaisk chimed in that their more affluent neighbors wouldn’t know how to get by if they didn’t have trash pickup in their neighborhoods.
“They’re upper class and they’re not used to it,” she said. “If they ever did have to go like this, they probably wouldn’t survive. There’d probably be trash everywhere, feces everywhere, ‘cause they wouldn’t know the first thing about how to solve the feces even if it was coming out of a house.”
But for Worley, the potential human toll from a fire is worth taking a little heat from the dissenters. He hopes to have the first draft of his resolution ready before the county's March public safety committee meeting.
“I believe with all my heart that what I’m doing on this issue will save lives,” Worley said. “I believe that. That’s not B.S. I do believe that this will save lives. It’s not political, it’s just the right thing to do.”