A large brush fire affecting parts of Riverhead, Manorville and Ridge in Suffolk County is said to be one of the 10 worst in the state's history.
A large brush fire that intensified when two smaller fires merged on Monday in areas of Riverhead, Ridge and Manorville has destroyed ten structures completely. As firefighters from across Suffolk, as well as some Nassau County-based fire departments, continue to battle the blaze, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has said that this is already among the 10 largest fires in state history. According to an unnamed state official, over 200 firefighters were actively battling the fire on Tuesday.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has said that “this fire is as serious as it gets.” As of Tuesday morning the fire was contained on three sides and officials announced they were “cautiously optimistic” that the fire would be contained by Tuesday evening, before winds could pick up again and reignite the blaze. This is the largest brush fire on Long Island since 1995, both in terms of acreage and response units.
John Kenavan, an ex-Captain and active member of the Brentwood Fire Department, said that more brush fires than normally occur can be expected this season as the ground remains drier than usual with a lack of precipitation. But the 34-year veteran emphasized that the magnitude of this fire, or any large brush fire, could not be predicted.
“As a fireman with experience, I am not surprised. But you cannot predict this,” Kenavan, said.
The unusually mild winter, low humidity and dry brush are to blame for creating the conditions in which a fire could spark or quickly spread. Strong, steady winds can carry embers and ignite other areas, resulting in spot fires that continue to grow outward. Kenavan describes the unpredictable movement of a large brush fire as leap-frogging, because it can easily climb trees and rapidly overtake an area. Evidence of the unpredictable path of the fire is evident in Manorville, where some homes in close proximity to the blaze were destroyed, while others close by remain intact.
The area affected by the fire, fortunately, is largely undeveloped with homes and a few businesses scattered throughout the area. One Manorville family said their home became consumed by the fire in less than 20 minutes; no one in the family was injured. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for parts of Riverhead at 5 p.m. on Monday, and evacuees were sent to the Riverhead Senior Center. Four Manorville evacuees spend the night at a Red Cross shelter.
The approach to battling large brush fires like the one burning in Riverhead differs from battling a house fire in several important ways. Most fire trucks have the capacity to hold between 750 and 1,000 gallons of water as a reserve, and can tap into hydrants when these reserves are exhausted.
Fire hydrants, however, are not as common on eastern Long Island, which is also less developed than western Suffolk and Nassau Counties. Instead, water tankers are needed to bring the necessary volume of water to fight a fire, which in this case has spread to nearly 1,000 acres.
Mike Zaffarano, a lieutenant in the Bellport Fire Department who was among the firefighters at the scene all day yesterday, described the use of specialized equipment used in fighting this fire. Brush trucks, also known as stump-jumpers, re-outfitted army vehicles that are fitted with a cage and other forms of armor, were sent into the blaze. These vehicles can knock down smaller trees to gain entry to the depth of the forest. Each truck has the capacity to carry a couple hundred gallons of water, and when its reserves are empty the vehicle must be refilled by water tankers that remain outside the perimeter of the fire.
However, it’s not as simple as turning around and heading back out the same way the vehicle entered the woods. “Trees get knocked down in a certain direction,” Kenavan explained, making it impossible to reverse the course of the truck, which requires operators to create a circular, one-way path around the fire. Crews were forced to abandon two fire trucks to the blaze as the fire surrounded them. (Photo courtesy of the Brentwood Fire Department)
Zaffarano rode in one of these vehicles on Monday, and on Tuesday, despite wearing a protective hood, his voice was hoarse from inhaling the smoke and ash in the air. Two firefighters were sent to Stony Brook Medical Center for smoke inhalation, something Zaffarano says is common and almost unavoidable, especially when battling a large brush fire such as this. “We don’t wear traditional protection in the woods,” Zaffarano explained, because the firefighters are inside the blaze for much longer periods of time.
According to Chief Blaise Gemellaro of West Islip Fire Department, firefighters had taken the upper hand in the battle, and most of the effort on Tuesday was to battle smaller, isolated fires. Kenavan, who was not at the scene, expects crews to be out there for another couple of days which will be spent wetting down hot spots.
“You can go through and knock down the fire, but under the leaves it’s still smouldering,” Kenavan explained.
“One good rain isn’t enough. We need a soaking rain,” Zaffarano added, noting that in the past several weeks the area has received under an inch of precipitation.
The optimal conditions for brush fires has been shared by the entire tri-state area, where several smaller fires occurred in southern New Jersey, at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and a separate one in the Gateway National Recreation Area, also within the borough. Another fire occurred in the Palisades Park System in Rockland County. A brush fire in Milford, Conn. affected the Metro-North service on Monday Evening.
On Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the affected areas, and investigators are working to discover the exact cause of the fire.
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