Cuomo declares state of emergency in Long Island fire

Local firefighters worked around the clock to help extinguish the brush fires in eastern Suffolk, and were highly praised for their hard work. Videojournalists: Mario Gonzalez and Jim Staubitser (April 10, 2012)

As investigators explore the possibility that the Manorville wildfire was started by someone who was burning brush or leaves, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency Tuesday in Suffolk County.

"All the ingredients were there for a real tragedy," Cuomo said minutes after touring the scene from a helicopter over Manorville and Ridge, noting that the coordinated response efforts -- and the efforts of volunteer firefighters -- averted that tragedy.

"This is a situation that could have gotten out of control," he said. "If you lost control of a fire this large, it could have been very, very, very bad."

The fire, which burned 1,124 acres, has been largely contained, though concerns remained about flare-ups as the winds have picked up, officials said.

"It's not over until it's over," Cuomo said, "until the last ember is out."

The governor's declaration paves the way for funding, eased statutes and more flexibility as state assets are deployed to help restoration efforts, he said.

"After reviewing the damage, it is well merited in this case," he said.

Suffolk County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said Tuesday afternoon the county command post set up in Manorville to coordinate the fire had been broken down and that just about 20 fire departments remained to put out any flare-ups.

By late evening, firefighters from Manorville, which had taken the lead in the effort, had sent home many volunteers and other departments that had come to their aid had left.

"They've had something to eat, they've cleaned up the trucks and are heading out to see their families that they haven't seen for 48 hours," said Manorville Capt. Rich Berni.

But even as the remaining volunteers prepared to leave, they answered two more fire calls, including one for another brush fire flare-up. As of 9:30 p.m., several small groups were in the woods with flashlights near the roadway on Wading River Manor Road, searching for leftover embers.

Helping to direct the effort was First Asst. Fire Chief Howard Snow who described it as "Just a little hotspot. We'll be chasing these for another week. The fire came through here earlier. We'll be prancing around here in the woods for another week."

Suffolk County Fire Commissioner Joe Williams cautioned Tuesday night that the fire is "controlled" but not "out" and that operations are "not wrapped" and they "may be going back tomorrow."

The fire -- the seventh largest in the state since 1975 -- engulfed three homes, damaged or destroyed six other structures, and left three firefighters injured, including one who was hospitalized with burns, Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone said.

Asked whether the fire may have been accidentally started by someone burning leaves or brush, Suffolk County Fire and Rescue Commissioner Joe Williams said officials had heard such rumors, and the arson squad and state Department of Environmental Conservation investigators were looking into them.

Bellone said, "It's being investigated. We have no knowledge of that at this time."

The fire had started on the north side of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton Monday and burned through some 300 acres of lab property, mostly woods and fields. Michael Pena, manager of the laboratory protection division, said there were no controlled burns on the day of the fire, which started about 2:30 p.m. Monday.

"There was no activity at all at that part of the lab," he added.

The state DEC would have to approve any controlled burns. The DEC did not approve any burns at the lab Monday, when the National Weather Service had declared a red flag warning due to gusty winds and extremely dry conditions.

Open burning is the largest cause of wildfires in the state. Debris burning caused 36 percent of all wildfires in New York between 1985 and 2009, according to the DEC.

Since 2009, open burning between March 16 and May 14, when dry grasses and leaves are abundant, has been banned across the state. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of wildfires during the ban period decreased by 26 percent.

Jerome Hauer, state commissioner of homeland security and emergency services, warned that conditions for additional fires will remain optimal for at least another 10 days.

"People are going to need to be very careful with outside burning of any kind," said Hauer, whose efforts coordinating state and local resources were praised by Cuomo. "Anything they do outdoors, whether cigarettes or barbecues," Hauer said, "has the potential of lighting the underbrush."

Bellone noted during a recent tour of the damage that he saw a new brush fire whipped up by increasing winds that had to be extinguished.

By the afternoon Bellone, Cuomo, Hauer and fire officials expressed hope that, barring the unforeseen, the situation was finally under control.

A county fire official said that about 200 firefighters battled the fire Tuesday. Twenty brush trucks, 10 tankers and 10 engines were employed. Thirty-five Suffolk County fire departments are involved, and Nassau firefighters have been sent home, he said.

Before addressing the media in a midafternoon news conference, Cuomo spoke to firefighters near a Manorville barn destroyed by fire.

"You guys made all the difference," the governor said.

Bellone praised the work of the firefighters, saying those volunteers had "helped save property and lives."

Those efforts included teams on the ground, as well as a state helicopter making water drops from the sky. Hauer called those drops "very effective" in dousing hot spots, but noted: "There's so much brush out there that's prone to burn. We've got to be vigilant over the next day or so to ensure we don't have any flare-ups."

The National Weather Service said a red-flag warning for outdoor fires, which expired at 8 p.m. Monday, was back in effect from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. The relative humidity will be as low as 25 percent and west winds blowing 10 to 20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph are predicted.

Bellone said lessons learned during the 1995 Sunrise Fire -- the largest in state history -- helped in fighting this wildfire, and officials have been coordinating efforts.

He said 41 homes remained without power Tuesday, down from thousands of outages.

The blaze has had firefighters working around the clock since Monday, and early Tuesday Bellone praised the work of those volunteers, calling them "an inspiration."

He noted the Manorville and Ridge fire departments had worked "under very difficult and dangerous circumstances."

The three injured 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 he met with the burned firefighter who was "in great spirits," adding: "It's a real testament to the spirit and heroism of these volunteer firefighters . . . who are working to protect their neighbors."

The firefighter was identified as William Hille Jr., 35, of Manorville. He and the two others were injured when the truck he was dousing flames from was suddenly engulfed by a circle of fire.

Hille spoke of his close call Tuesday at his in-laws' home in East Moriches after being released from Stony Brook University Hospital's burn unit, where he was taken for treatment of first-and second-degree burns.

"I've never been so scared," said Hille, who is a correction officer on Riker's Island for the New York City Department of Correction and works in fire safety there.

Baird-Streeter said Tuesday that the county's fire costs are almost exclusively related to personnel and overtime. No cost estimate was available.

Brookhaven spokesman Jack Krieger said it was too early to determine what the fire would cost the town. Riverhead Police Chief David Hagermiller said the cost to his town will be minimal -- possibly about $10,000.

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 inferno burned swaths of Manorville, Ridge, Riverhead and several other communities in what was considered a single inferno, Bellone and rescue officials said.

Around midnight Monday, the eastern front of the fire was still burning out of control.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, flanked by police, fire, emergency services officials and Brookhaven National Lab officials and American Red Cross representatives at the Saints Peter and Paul Church parking lot, on Wading River Road in Manorville, Bellone seemed more assured the tide was turning in the battle than the previous evening when he called the fire "as serious as it gets."

The wildfire brought back memories of the four-day battle to extinguish the Sunrise Fire, which ultimately cost state and local governments more than $5.2 million.

Damage assessment has not yet been done, but damage to land, fire equipment, homes and outbuildings are expected to be listed in the state of emergency declaration, officials said. Suffolk Legis. Edward P. Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said reforestation could also be a part of the request.

"We've been down this road with Tropical Storm Irene," Lesko said, in terms of documenting losses. "The first thing is to declare the state of emergency."

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.

The evacuation order was lifted by Tuesday afternoon, though police and fire officials maintained a presence on roads around Manorville, and it was unclear whether all roads closed during the fire were completely accessible.

Red Cross shelter manager Scott Wheaton said four evacuees from Manorville spent the night on cots at Riverhead Senior Center but they'd headed off to try to see if they could get back home in the morning. Most evacuees, he said, apparently stayed with friends or family.

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