The windblown wildfire that burned across the Long Island Pine Barrens and torched two Manorville homes and a business was contained on three sides early Tuesday, but officials cautioned that conditions in the fire zone remained unpredictable.
"There are no predictions" at this point, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. "But we have the volunteer firefighters working throughout the night."
Baird-Streeter said the eastern front of the fire continued to burn out of control early Tuesday.
Earlier Monday night, the wildfire, which started as two separate brushfires that combined, raged through at least 500 acres of woods and vegetation, fueled by the bone-dry brush, strong and steady winds and low humidity. The result: tinderbox-like conditions, Suffolk officials said.
"This fire is as serious as it gets," Bellone said at an 8 p.m. news conference Monday at the command post in Ridge, flanked by fire and police chiefs. "It is not yet under control."
Another news conference with Bellone, Brookhaven National Lab officials and American Red Cross representatives was scheduled for 9:15 a.m. Tuesday at the Saints Peter and Paul Church parking lot, 781 Wading River Road, Manorville, to give an update on the situation.
During the evening, the fire moved in a southeast direction. A mandatory evacuation order was issued for parts of Riverhead and other areas also were being evacuated, Bellone said.
"We are fortunate that the area that we are talking about here is a very isolated area in terms of homes, residences and buildings," Bellone said. "There are scattered homes throughout the area that have been evacuated."
The mandatory evacuation of parts of Riverhead was ordered at 5 p.m. Monday, with residents relocated to the Riverhead Senior Center on Shade Tree Lane in Aquebogue.
"Moving forward with evacuations, if any are necessary, we will be reaching out to those residents directly," Bellone said. "We also have fire and police personnel who will be going door to door in those neighborhoods if additional evacuations are necessary."
The toll so far
Several hundred acres were still burning, Ridge fire officials said at Monday night's news conference. Suffolk officials said hundreds of homes were without power.
Fire and town officials said the destroyed homes were in the part of Manorville located in Brookhaven. Bellone said two residences and one commercial building were gutted.
Several firefighters had minor injuries as flames surrounded two fire trucks at one point Monday, and they abandoned both vehicles, said Baird-Streeter, the county spokeswoman.
Three firefighters were taken to Stony Brook University Medical Center, Bellone said. Two were released after being treated for smoke inhalation but one was admitted with first and second-degree burns, Bellone said.
Bellone said many firefighters were being called back to the perimeters of the fire for their safety as darkness fell.
Ridge fire Chief Steve Gray said some firefighters are being sent home to rest, but others will likely battle the blaze through Wednesday.
Gray said the inferno started as two fires at one point during the day but merged: "Right now it's one large fire."
Winds pushed the flames into the tops of the trees where it spread, but News 12 Long Island meteorologist Bill Korbel said winds were diminishing Monday night.
Gray said some people who had been evacuated were allowed to go back to their homes to get animals and valuables when it was deemed safe.
Suffolk SPCA Chief Roy Gross said people in evacuated areas who have pets could bring the animals to the Riverhead Senior Center.
'At a loss' in Manorville
Manorville was particularly hard hit by the blaze.
Johnny Moretti, 26, was in shock Monday night as he stood outside the Manorville home where he'd lived all his life. Flames had gutted the one-story house on Oakwood Drive, taking out the basement, kitchen, garage and most of the family's belongings. A half-charred Happy Easter sign hung in a front window.
"I'm at a loss," Moretti said, watching the remainders of a flame flicker in a tree next to the destroyed home. "I watched the fire come all the way up and there was nothing I could do."
Mark Bennett, who lives on Oakwood Drive in Manorville, rushed home from work early Monday evening to find the edge of his property burning. He went inside his house, scooped up his 2-year-old corgi-beagle mix, Parker, and a backpack full of kibble, and quickly evacuated.
"We were lucky," Bennett said, noting that his house hadn't burned. "We lost a little bit of property. It's scary."
Reaction in Ridge
On Manorville Road in Ridge, it was a mad scramble to escape homes as flames approached just before 6 p.m.
Marcia Lucas ran down the street, toting a backpack and shouting, "I'm getting the hell out of here!"
"It's extremely scary," she continued. "I've been living here a long time and I've never seen this."
A caravan of fire engines approached the street where bright orange flames swallowed trees and moved perilously close to homes. As residents fled, firefighters suited up amid thick smoke to attack the blaze.
"We're going in to try to knock down the head of the fire before it reaches the back of these homes," said 1st Lt. Ralph Lettieri of the Hagerman Fire Department in East Patchogue.
Diane Juergens, a Ridge resident, said she encountered the blaze as she returned home from attending classes around 3 p.m.
"It looked like a volcano exploding," said Juergens, whose husband, Chris, had been kept from home by one of several roadblocks around the neighborhood. "The plume of smoke in the air was just amazing."
Juergens said the area has been inundated with vehicles. "It looks like a war zone, with firetrucks and helicopters," she said.
In Upton, Brookhaven National Lab was concern
The fires had burned land in the area on and around Brookhaven National Laboratory, mostly on park land, said Michael Bebon, deputy director for operations at the Upton-based laboratory. The fire started about 2:30 p.m. along the north side of the lab property, he said.
As a precaution, the lab evacuated two employees from the sewage treatment plant on the northern border, but Bebon said the complex housing of its well-known relativistic heavy ion collider was not in imminent danger.
The fire covered about 300 acres on the Brookhaven National Laboratory site, lab officials said.
Bebon said the fire departments at the scene are experienced at controlling brush fires and have specialized equipment for such blazes. That includes so called "stump jumpers," brushfire-fighting vehicles that have four-wheel drive, high clearance and side protection.
Agencies, volunteers pitch in
Bellone's county website said firefighters from more than 100 fire and rescue units in Suffolk and Nassau County have responded to the fire.
A Suffolk County police helicopter tried to find the perimeter of the fire, police said.
Fire agencies were asked to go first to the staging area at the Suffolk Fire Academy in Yaphank and get their assignments, with priority going to the spraying down of residential homes in the path of the inferno, Baird-Streeter said.
Impact on traffic, utilities
Bellone urged residents to stay off the high-occupancy vehicle lanes of the eastbound Long Island Expressway, officials said, as fire authorities raced to the fire scene. Eastbound Route 25 was closed east of William Floyd Parkway, police said.
County officials also closed the westbound service road of the Long Island Expressway, starting at Exit 69. Both the HOV and service road closures were expected to last until midnight.
Bellone asked county residents to refrain from calling 911 because the system was being overloaded.
LIPA has cut power to a major transmission line running through the area.
"We were asked to de-energize our transmission line at the request of the fire marshal," spokesman Mark Gross said. "We have switched load to another line so no customers are impacted."
The fire forced the Long Island Rail Road to substitute bus service for eastbound rush-hour passengers going between Ronkonkoma to Greenport, said railroad spokesman Salvatore Arena. Also, the 9:44 p.m. westbound train out of Greenport would be replaced by buses until Ronkonkoma, he said.
Mid-march to mid-May historically marks the period of highest fire risks across the state. From 2000 to 2009, New York's fire departments responded to an average of 2,300 wildfires each year from March 16 to May 14, according to statistics. That represents about 46 percent of all wildfires for the year.
Moretti, the man whose Manorville home was burned, said he saw the fire approaching through the woods and evacuated his parents, freed his two cats and collected as many belongings into his car as he could fit.
As firefighters extinguished the remaining embers, Moretti was trying to find the bright side, even though most of the block's other homes suffered damage to just adjacent property like boats and sheds.
"It's a blessing in disguise," he said. "I'll get a new house."