Guard members learn to fight wildfires

Sgt. Ed Kelly, of Farmingville, uses a drip

Sgt. Ed Kelly, of Farmingville, uses a drip torch as members of the 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing, based on Long Island, are taught basic wildfire techniques by NYS Forest Rangers at an area on the outskirts of Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach. (August 3, 2012) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

New York Air National Guard fire chief Ed Metcalf extinguished countless building fires during his career as an FDNY captain in Brooklyn, but wildfires like the ones that tore through Ridge and Manorville in April were "a whole different world," he said.

"The difference between a wildfire and a structure fire is like night and day," said Metcalf, a senior master sergeant who leads a team of firefighters serving in the Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, based at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach.

"It's important for us to learn how to fight these fires, too, so that we can help next time there's a fire like the one in Manorville or the ones we saw recently in Colorado."

With an eye toward eventually deploying to wildfire zones, Metcalf, who retired from the FDNY in 2003 after 20 years, and 16 other firefighters from the 106th completed a five-day wildfire basic training course at Gabreski on Friday. The starter course primed them on wildfire behavior, safety techniques and how to use hand tools to beat back forest fires.

The training was organized by the New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, forest rangers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission's Wildfire Task Force.

"It's going to really benefit them [the guard members] in the long run," said course instructor Willie Cirone, 57, a firefighter with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "It's exactly what the Island needs."

After four days of classroom work aimed at building a foundation of knowledge about wildfires, the trainees put some of that coursework into practice Friday, extinguishing small fires with hand tools, including an ax-like tool called a Pulaski.

"I've never even seen a Pulaski tool before," Metcalf said.

Cirone warned the trainees not to lose focus while watching the blaze.

"Don't get mesmerized by the flames," he said.

Among the unit's members are two local fire chiefs already well acquainted with wildfires. Wading River Fire Department Chief Eric Cohen and Westhampton Beach Fire Department Chief John "Chip" Bancroft both led firefighters into the Ridge-Manorville inferno, which burned 1,123 acres in the pine barrens region, destroyed three homes and several structures.

"This training puts a different perspective on what the fire's doing and how to better fight it," said Cohen, 42. "It's great experience."

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