Firefighters learn techniques in Pine Barrens

Students from firefighting agencies and departments from New York and around the country hone their fire-starting skills during a series of controlled burns near the Pine Barrens. The weeklong training classes were given by the New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, which is based on Long Island. Videojournalist: John Paraskevas (Oct. 30, 2013)

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The New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy is holding its 16th annual program on eastern Long Island through Sunday.

It began last Friday, offering a choice of 25 classes to 184 students from firefighting agencies and departments from New York and throughout the world.

On Wednesday, nine firefighters in one class lit "chubbies" -- flares used by firefighters to conduct controlled burns -- and tossed them into the dried grass in a Calverton field.

Academy instructor Dave Crary had warned the class to expect 2- to 4-foot flames. But the fire quickly became more like 6 to 8 feet high, kicked up by a sudden breeze and fueled by heavier grass.

As the fire raced across the field toward the tree line of the Pine Barrens, a team of professional firefighters, on site to monitor the fire, dragged hoses from a small fire truck and quickly extinguished the flames with shovels.

John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, said the Pine Barrens, where the exercises are being held, is a fire-based ecosystem that depends on flames to regenerate.

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"It's endemic to the area," he said. "This is our wilderness."

The fire academy was created after the Pine Barrens' Sunrise Fire in 1995 consumed 7,000 acres in Suffolk County. The Crescent Bow Fire in 2012 burned 1,100 acres in the Pine Barrens.

For Tim Foley, an instructor and retired federal firefighter who lives in western Colorado, teaching at the academy for the past 10 years has provided a valuable opportunity for agencies to work together.

"In the old days, people would say, 'We do things our own way, we don't care how anyone else does anything,' " he said. "It's a coordinated effort."

That rapid response can work with agencies responding to any disaster, whether it's a fire, a hazardous material spill or a hurricane, he said.

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