MYRTLE BEACH -- For more than 12 years, Mary Tice never went anywhere unless it was raining.
That's because Tice, 54, spent those years working at two of Horry County's four fire towers for the South Carolina Forestry Commission, looking for smoke that could signal a devastating wildfire was cooking.
"It didn't matter if it was hot or if it was cold," said Tice, who now lives near York. "If it was not raining, and there was a chance of a fire, that tower was manned."
The Forestry Commission began decommissioning fire towers in 1993 with the advent of new technology, and only 40 of the state's 160 fire towers are left. Horry County history enthusiasts are trying to preserve the county's two remaining towers, built in the Depression era, but the Forestry Commission is opposing any formal historic designation that could hamper its ability to sell the property.
But there could be other ways to save the towers, at least one of which helped spot the Buist tract fire in 1976 near Carolina Forest that burned 30,000 acres, the largest wildfire in recorded state history.
Parts of the 110-foot towers could be put in a museum, although not everyone is keen on the idea.
"It's always the last choice to dismantle them and take pieces of them," said Joel Carter, chairman of the county's board of architectural review. "It's always the best case to have the historical structure intact."
The towers will be discussed at the board's August meeting.
At the Meade fire tower, on state Highway 544 near Coastal Carolina University, the handrails are rusty and wobbly and some wooden planks are missing from the stairway. The county's other tower is near Aynor on state Highway 319. The two towers in Loris and Wampee have been taken down.
One attempt to preserve the remaining Horry County towers has already faltered. The architectural board wanted to place both towers on the local register of historic places, but Horry County Council balked after the Forestry Commission opposed the idea.
Being placed on the historic register would require a public hearing for any major changes to the structure, which forestry officials said would make it more difficult to take down the towers, make modifications for safety reasons or sell the property. Most of the towers have not been maintained since 1993.
"We really have been fortunate that nobody has gotten hurt in them that we know of," said John Dickinson, the regional forester for the Pee Dee region, which includes Horry County. "We have chased children out of them on numerous occasions."
Not all the towers are sitting idly. Some serve as radio towers, collecting radio signals from the Forestry Commission and beaming them across the state, Dickinson said.
Charles Ramsey, the commission's support and plans director, said there is no formal policy to get rid of all the unused fire towers, and Dickinson said the commission would be willing to donate an Horry County tower for a museum. One tower has already been moved to the commission's environmental education center near Columbia for public viewing, Ramsey said.
Still, some Horry County history buffs are concerned it's only a matter of time before the remaining towers in the county are taken down. Coastal Carolina has decided to purchase the Meade tower site for about $1.1 million and is waiting for a nod from the state's budget and control board, which must approve the sale of state assets.
The university does not have any specific plans for the property, and Eddie Dyer, an executive vice president for the university, said it could consider keeping the tower standing.
When Tice heard the Loris tower, where she also worked, had been taken down, she was shocked. She asked her son, who still lives in Horry County, to retrieve some of the steps from the tower. But by the time he got there, the wood planks were broken.
"I wondered how many times over the 12 years that I climbed those towers," Tice said. "I wondered how many times I walked on those steps, or how many times my children walked on those steps."