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A fire on Lake Wylie has officials asking: Does York County need a fire boat?

Firefighters battle lake front home in Lake Wylie

Fire Departments from York County, South Carolina, and Charlotte are fighting a house fire at a waterfront home in Lake Wylie on Carroll Cove.
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Fire Departments from York County, South Carolina, and Charlotte are fighting a house fire at a waterfront home in Lake Wylie on Carroll Cove.

York County may need a new way to protect homes and businesses on the shores of Lake Wylie. But the obvious answer, experts say, isn’t the easiest.

County staff told fire chiefs gathered at a recent public safety committee meeting it should take 60 to 90 days to study whether the county should buy a fire boat. The issue came up after a March 20 fire on Carroll Cove in Lake Wylie. Departments from North and South Carolina responded, including a fire boat from Charlotte. The fire destroyed the lakefront home, well away from a fire hydrant trucks could use.

York County councilman and public safety committee member Britt Blackwell said he received calls from concerned lake residents. Those calls, and hearing about firefighters having to run hose hundreds of feet to the home, prompted discussion about if the county needs a fire boat.

“It appears there is a need for that service,” Blackwell said. “There’s a lot of expensive homes on the lake and they have to be protected, too.”

Lake Wylie has more than 300 miles of shoreline, including 111 miles in York County touching parts of Lake Wylie, Tega Cay, Fort Mill, York and Rock Hill.

Fire chiefs at the meeting said a new boat would be expensive. 

“The cost of these things is up there,” said Don Love, chief of Bethel Volunteer Fire Department in Lake Wylie. “It’s different from putting a truck in gear and pumping water.”

It also would require specialized training to operate. 

“There definitely needs to be a lot of structure, a lot of training,” said Amanda Foster, director of the county department of fire safety.

In the past decade, there have been at least a half dozen instances when a lakefront structure caught fire. Before 2007, there were no fire boats on Lake Wylie. Then-state Rep. Ralph Norman, now a U.S. Congressman, helped to push for a Tega Cay boat, Marine 6. In 2008, Gaston County added a boat, Chief Sloan Pettus said. Charlotte Fire Department opened Station 38 in 2008 on Shopton Road West, which includes docks for a fire boat and pontoon for dive teams on Withers Cove.

As recently as 2017, there was talk of adding a second fire boat in Tega Cay, giving firefighters one on each side of the dam serving the city with 16 miles of shoreline.

There are none now. The Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department’s boat is no longer operational.

“It is not in service at this time as it is in need of repairs,” said Charlie Funderburk, city manager. “The city has been discussing potentially purchasing a rescue boat that can be used both on the Catawba River and on the lake around Tega Cay, but a definite decision has not been made on that at this time.”

Love said Gaston County pulled its boat out of the water with plans to sell it. Fire boats aren’t just expensive to buy, Love said, but to maintain and operate for relatively limited use.

“We’ve maybe used a fire boat five or six times,” said Love, who has been with his department 52 years.

Love isn’t sure the need is there. Incidents needing one are few, he said, and mutual aid agreements have one at the ready.

“All I’ve got to do is make one call to Charlotte,” Love said. “It doesn’t take them long to come.”

Still, lakefront properties can be a challenge to access from the road. Many sit at the end of winding, gravel roads from back when Duke Power — now Duke Energy — leased properties around the lake. Some have steep elevations even for smaller vehicles. Two peninsula homes just a stone skip from one another by water may be miles by apart by road if a cove separates them.

Andy Merriman, assistant county manager, said continued growth in York County and along the lake could mean more need for fire service along the water.

“Of course with growth, you’re going to have more recreational boating, more marinas, more need,” he said.

County leaders and fire chiefs at the meeting didn’t have firm figures about how much a fire boat costs. Gaston County’s fire boat cost almost $190,000 a decade ago. There was a consensus among fire chiefs a new boat today could cost multiple times that amount. 

After county staff study the feasibility of purchasing a new fire boat, Council would have the final decision.

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