$100,000 in equipment stolen from forestry commission

COLUMBIA, SC - In an unprecedented break-in, approximately $100,000.00 worth of equipment has been stolen from the South Carolina Forestry Commission's maintenance and storage area.

Sometime between the afternoon of Dec. 23 and the morning of Dec. 27, unknown people entered the property by cutting through a locked gate.  The crime occurred at the shop complex, a non-public area of the agency's state headquarters at 5500 Broad River Rd. in Columbia.

Among the missing items are critical pieces of equipment that the agency needs for emergency response, according to Scott Hawkins, SCFC public information director.

"Many of the items are things our Incident Management Team must have to respond to large-scale disasters such as the bigger wildfires and hurricanes,"  he said.

The items include laptops, generators, welding equipment and a variety of hand tools.  The thieves also made off with a Ford F350 diesel flatbed truck adorned with the agency's logo and two ATVs equipped for law enforcement and spot firefighting duty.

SCFC's law enforcement division, Columbia Police and SLED are cooperating on the investigation.

"This is a crime not just against our agency, but against the citizens of South Carolina" Hawkins said.  "We've built up our Incident Management Team over time and acquired much of the gear with one-time-only Homeland Security grants."

Agency officials say it's unclear how quickly the material can be replaced, if at all.  Anyone with information is urged to contact their local police department or the Forestry Commission at 1-800-777-FIRE (3473).

In recent years, the Forestry Commission's Incident Management Team has been activated for a variety of missions, including the Highway 31 Wildfire in Horry County and the Hurricane Ike recovery effort in Texas.  It's organized and trained in accordance with the National Incident Management System, which ensures there is nationally a uniform level of disaster response and capability.  Much of the equipment now missing formed the backbone of the SCFC team's mobile command center.

"While we remain prepared to protect South Carolinians during the upcoming wildfire season, our ability to mobilize for large-scale disasters is greatly hindered because of the gear they chose to steal," Hawkins said.

The list includes 13 Dell Laptops, three Gen Pro Generators Model 125 EH, one Buffalo Terrastation Pro II, a computer network storage unit, one Millermatic Welder with spoolgun,  one Honda EU3000IS Generator, 1997 Ford white F-350 flatbed truck, 2006 Yamaha Big Bear 400 4-wheeler, one Black and Decker 10-inch chop saw, a 6x12 trailer, 2006 Polaris Ranger Utility Vehicle, assorted binders, tie down straps, hand tools and power tools.

Not all of the gear taken was designated for use on large disasters.  An agency supervisor discovered the break-in Monday when he stopped in to retrieve a tool needed for a simple repair to an on-call firefighting tractor.

The theft is just the latest blow to the cash-strapped agency.

Staff has been concerned for a number of years now about the impact state budget cuts have had on personnel and equipment.  Dwindling state funds have whittled the agency's budget down by 46 percent -- $8 million over the last three years.

"Whoever did this knew when to hit us, how to hit us, and what they wanted, but their big mistake was stealing from a member of the state's law enforcement family," Hawkins said.