HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Plans for a new hospital in Horry County are facing opposition from conservationists, who believe it could increase the risk of wildfires in an already-prone area.

“Of the 76 Heritage Preserves in South Carolina, this one right here is the most biologically diverse,” said Trapper Fowler with the Coastal Conservation League.

The Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve covers more than 10,000 acres between Myrtle Beach and Conway.

Conway Medical Center plans a 50-bed hospital in Carolina Forest, across the street from the southern edge of the preserve.

Fowler spent six years managing the preserve with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and is now with the Coastal Conservation League.

Fowler said the hospital in the area is a bad idea.

“You’re putting a hospital in the middle of a wildfire prone area of the state,” Fowler said.

South Carolina Forestry Commission Forest Protection Chief Darryl Jones said prescribed burns are a necessary tool to minimize wildfire risk.

“It’s going to burn during a wildfire or it’s going to burn on a day when we choose to,” Jones said.

Jones battled the Highway 31 fire in this area in 2009, which was the state’s most-destructive wildfire. It burned close to 20,000 acres, destroyed nearly 80 homes and caused $25 million in damage.

Jones said the proposed hospital could hamper preventative measures.

“A hospital is definitely a smoke-sensitive area, so you would not have the option of sending smoke to it unless you were a good distance away,” Jones said. “There’s potential over time it’s going to limit some burning.”

In a statement to News13, Conway Medical Center said it “has and will continue to work with local and state leaders as well as community members to mitigate concerns over prescribed burns and wildfires.”

CMC said the hospital will use natural wetlands, the latest HVAC systems and a loop road with sprinklers to mitigate wildfire risk and smoke infiltration.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local officials highlighted the need for more access to healthcare in our community,” the statement reads. “We care deeply about the people of Horry County and the many different aspects that make it truly unique.”

“This is a really big moment in Horry County history,” Fowler said.

Conway Medical Center just needs county approval of its rezoning request to start building.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources reached out to Conway Medical Center, saying it would buy the land from the hospital if the plans were scrapped.

Conservationists have a meeting planned for 5:30 p.m. Friday to discuss potential impacts at the Carolina Forest Library.

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Manny Martinez is the weekend evening anchor and a reporter at News13. Manny is from Chicago. He graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in broadcast journalism. Follow Manny on Twitter and read more of his work here.