Wildfires fought with wisdom from '95 blaze

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off Wading River Road as a large brush fire spread across eastern Long Island. (April 9, 2012) (Credit: Chris Ware)

Facing the threat of an active wildfire season fueled by recent drought-like conditions, and tested by this past week's massive brush blaze in Ridge and Manorville, local fire departments and government agencies are putting into play the lessons learned since 1995's infamous Sunrise Fire.

Improvements in communication and disaster planning -- developed after the '95 blaze and the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- sped up efforts to tame this past week's fire, which burned through 1,000 acres of the pine barrens, officials said.

Issues that hampered firefighting efforts during the four-day blaze that burned more than 6,000 acres in 1995 -- departments unable to communicate with one another over different radio frequencies, confusion over which agency was commanding the scene, and delays in getting equipment -- have been largely ironed out, according to firefighters and agency heads who were involved in tackling both fires.

Suffolk Fire Commissioner Joe Williams said that while this past week's fire "had the same potential to spread like the Sunrise Fire . . . the aggressiveness of our training and the improvements to our communications systems over the years were some of the biggest factors working to our advantage."Those tactical changes also remain key to snuffing out future wildfires as Long Island faces the potential for additional flare-ups sparked by a drier-than-average winter and continued dry conditions. This March was the driest on record for Islip, according to the National Weather Service, and on Friday the agency issued a severe-drought advisory for the Island.

"The conditions are pretty ripe for the possibility of additional brush fires," said Joey Picca, a meteorologist with the weather service's Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Improved communicationBolstering brush fire efforts this past week were federal guidelines and grants given to local fire departments in the wake of 9/11 that beefed up emergency response procedures and equipment.

While firefighters in the thick of the Sunrise Fire, the state's largest brush fire, struggled to communicate over varying radio frequencies, they now have access to a single countywide frequency and a state frequency for large-scale emergencies. The use of a common frequency was a byproduct of the 9/11 attacks when first responders from the tri-state area struggled to communicate when rushing to the World Trade Center.

"The biggest lesson we learned came with communication," said Williams, a former New York Fire Department firefighter who also was part of the Sunrise effort as a volunteer for the Holbrook Fire Department.

Williams said the emergency management plans developed after 9/11 helped accelerate the activation of a central command post on Monday.

Within 30 minutes of receiving a 2 p.m. call about the developing fire, Suffolk County sent its mobile command van to the scene, Williams said. Fitted with radio equipment and a conference room, the van served as a central meeting point for the fire chiefs from the 35 responding fire departments.

"We had all the decision-makers in one area," Williams said. "They were communicating with their units, and reporting back, which allowed us to get proper updates."

The centralized post helped prevent the leadership shuffle experienced during the 1995 fire when command shifted hands from the hodgepodge of local fire departments to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

This time, while state and county officials were on hand to offer support in mobilizing resources, the fire chiefs from Ridge and Manorville were calling the shots, Williams said.

"The local fire chief is still in charge of the fire," Williams said. "He never relinquishes his command."

More gear, rotations

The instant access to federal, state and local agencies helped, said Steve Grey, first assistant chief of the Ridge Fire Department. "Within the first couple of hours I had the state, town and county at my side making sure we got whatever resources we needed," he said.

Those resources included Air National Guard and Suffolk County police helicopters conducting aerial surveillance, and a New York State Police helicopter dousing the flames.

There also has been an added emphasis on multiagency trainings in response to the Sunrise Fire and 9/11, which agencies involved with this week's fire credit with improving communications across department lines.

"Since we train together and work with each other during multiagency trainings, when we do get on the scene, whether it's Suffolk or Nassau, we're all training the same way and our tactics are the same," Grey said.In 1999, state officials launched the New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, which provides training to more than 300 firefighters statewide every October on the grounds of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

"It's one of the biggest things we've done to prepare firefighters since the Sunrise Fire," said Col. Andrew Jacob, assistant director of the New York State Forest Rangers.

When Rick Clay, fire chief of the Mastic Fire Department during the Sunrise Fire, arrived at Monday's scene as a Suffolk County Sheriff's captain, he noted the differences in coordination efforts: "Things seem more organized and immediate."

Another change Clay noticed was increased rotation among the units coming in and out of the fire. During the Sunrise Fire, most units were working through 12-hour shifts; this time around he said most chiefs cut that number down to five to six hours to address dehydration issues.

"There's much more awareness of exhaustion levels," Clay said. "They recognize it's important to replace firefighters to allow those coming out to recharge."

The boom in residential development in Suffolk County also meant that fire departments had more hydrants to tap into today compared with 17 years ago.

"There were hydrants on every block," Williams said. "Water was not an issue."

Review expected

Looking ahead, Williams said many local fire departments will likely take inventory of their brush fire equipment, deciding where they need to invest in restocking and refurbishing supplies.

It's already been an active season for the departments, which responded to 110 brush fire calls before last Monday's fire.

Suffolk County is in constant communication with the National Weather Service to monitor conditions, Williams said, and continues to advise residents to uphold the statewide ban on open burning that runs from March 14 to May 16.

County Executive Steve Bellone said his office will organize a wrap-up meeting between the different county agencies and fire departments this week, though a date has yet to be determined, to discuss what went well and what still needs fine tuning.

"This was a massive response that saw great coordination among many levels of government and agencies, but I'm a big believer in looking at what we can do better in the future," Bellone said.

With Sarah Crichton

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