One year after a huge brush fire scorched 1,124 acres in Long Island's pine barrens, firefighters face a new, potentially dangerous threat -- downed trees, hanging branches and stump holes created by superstorm Sandy and a string of nor'easters.
Fallen trees create more fuel for wildfires and force firefighters to negotiate cluttered terrain while working in smoky, low-visibility conditions.
"It's going to be an obstacle course getting around them," said John Urevich, a Riverhead firefighter and chairman of the Central Pine Barrens Commission's wildfire task force.
Stump trucks and other equipment may not be able to move through downed trees or could get stuck, possibly putting firefighters at risk and allowing a wildfire to grow, officials said.
Despite a wet winter, conditions on Long Island are ripe for brush fires. Between March 1 and Friday, the region received about 2.74 inches of rain, more than 2 inches less than the average, according to the National Weather Service in Upton, meteorologist David Stark said.
The service on Tuesday said fire chances were elevated and the next day issued a red-flag warning when winds were high and humidity low. The alert means "any fire that develops, it has the potential to spread rapidly and be difficult to extinguish," Stark said.
Fire departments, fire districts, Suffolk County, the commission and other agencies have worked over the past year to act on lessons learned from the April 9-10 brush fire in Manorville and Ridge, representatives said.
"People have put brush fires and wildfires higher on the table to be concerned about and prepared for," Urevich said.
A county report assessing last year's fire response, obtained by Newsday, concludes:
Communication problems at times hindered firefighting efforts;
Fire crews chased fires rather than following assignments;
Response units got lost in the woods or operated in areas they were not needed;
Emergency vehicles that responded to the fire clogged roads.
The report has not been released to the public.
Changes already made
A group of fire experts -- current and past firefighters, fire coordinators and others -- has been discussing ways to address issues from the fire, including communications, said Joe Williams, Suffolk County's commissioner of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services. The group held its first official meeting on March 18 to present changes it recommended to a county panel.
Among the changes are assigning only a few crews to a central command post and sending others to staging areas on the edges of a fire. Last year, all fire crews were asked to respond to one command post.
One chief at each staging area will hand out assignments and make sure crews are operating on the same radio channels, Williams said. The change improves communications and makes sure roads are open for first responders.
Suffolk County's FRES also has hired three new assistant chiefs and four new all-hazards fire coordinators, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.
In addition, the agency has established wildland task forces outside the pine barrens region, which covers parts of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns, she said.
Other changes, such as upgrading technology, require time and money, Williams said.
"You can only move at the speed of government," Urevich said. "Sometimes that's not the fastest."
FRES supports fire departments and can recommend, but not order changes. Similarly, the Central Pine Barrens Commission's wildfire task force serves as a resource and cannot require changes.
Recommendations from the county after-action report, such as using GPS to track response crews and equipment, are being studied, but "we need the 109 fire departments to buy into that," Williams said.
Other agencies have also made adjustments.
BNL takes precautions
Brookhaven National Laboratory sought state Department of Environmental Conservation wildland firefighting training for its 30 firefighters, widened fire breaks in its wooded areas and cut away trees encroaching on buildings, said Michael Pena, manager of the laboratory protection division.
Last year's fire started on BNL property.
The lab also bought two water bladders that hold hundreds of gallons and can be placed in areas with no fire hydrants or water resources.
"Having a fire of that magnitude on site, we wanted to make sure if it happened again, we were much better prepared," Pena said.
The DEC categorized the fire -- the seventh largest in New York State history -- as incendiary, or arson. No arrests have been made and the case is still under investigation, Suffolk County Police Arson Squad Det. Sgt. George White said.
The Central Pine Barrens Commission has started identifying water sources suitable for helicopter buckets to use in fire emergencies. The agency also distributed copies of a regional fire management plan to fire districts and departments, and is researching technology that could allow fire chiefs to track trucks and equipment on a real-time basis.
The commission, which oversees land management, conservation and stewardship in the 160-square-mile pine barrens, has met with area fire companies and plans to meet with residents to discuss protecting property from fire.
"We're hoping to build up a lot of general knowledge with the public," commission executive director John Pavacic said.
The commission recently staged two prescribed fires to remove dead vegetation and is working to ensure local helicopters are available to assist in fires. Last year, helicopters from Albany provided support, he said.
On Monday, the commission will hold its first spring wildfire academy specializing in prescribed burns and wildfire behaviors. About 70 people registered, more than two-thirds from New York, Pavacic said.
Suffolk's Department of Health Services, under orders from the county legislature, will drill wells in Manorville for firefighters to use in an emergency. During last year's fire, finding water was difficult in areas without hydrants. One crew drew from a swimming pool.
Four test wells are in place and contracts to buy supplies to drill the full wells should be issued this month. Another four wells should be installed by the end of the year, agency spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said.
CHANGES AFTER THE FIRE
Rather than responding directly to command post, fire departments will be sent to staging areas for assignments and to coordinate radio communications.
Wildland task forces have been established in Suffolk County towns not included in the Central Pine Barrens Area, which covers parts of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns. Each task force has four chiefs, three deputy fire chiefs, four brush trucks and four engines or tankers.
Eight new wells are planned for portions of Manorville for firefighters to use in emergencies. Four sites have been tested. All should be operating by the end of the year.
Man-made and natural bodies of water are being identified and evaluated to see whether they can be sources of water for helicopter buckets.
Coordinating with local Army and Air National Guard units for helicopter response.
The arson investigation continues; no arrests have been made.