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Long Island's firefighters now better prepared to protect pine barrens

The Sunrise Fire in 1995 exposed gaps in coordination, communication and training.

Firefighters survey the Sunrise Fire on Aug. 25,

Firefighters survey the Sunrise Fire on Aug. 25, 1995 on Old Country Road in Westhampton. Photo Credit: Newsday/Bill Davis

As deadly wildfires rage in California, firefighters and conservationists on Long Island are determined to use the hard lessons they learned from two massive blazes in the pine barrens to head off another catastrophe.

The experts credit everything from controlled burning and new equipment to better coordination and greater community awareness in helping them protect the Suffolk preserve from the magnitude of the wildfires out west. 

While Long Island isn't in imminent danger, California "does provide a reminder that the potential is always there for significant wildfires," said John Pavacic of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, which oversees Long Island's largest natural area. “The measures we are taking will mitigate the problems should we have another major wildfire.”

In summer 1995, from late August through early September, fires engulfed both sides of Sunrise Highway near Westhampton, scorching more than 5,000 of the preserve's 100,000 acres and forcing hundreds from their homes. Flames and smoke closed roadways and the Long Island Rail Road, isolating the Hamptons for days. In April 2012, fires struck again. Roughly 1,100 acres burned near Manorville and Ridge, closing stretches of the Long Island Expressway and evacuating parts of Riverhead. 

Fighting the 1995 fire exposed a host of weaknesses: Confusion abounded about who was in charge. Firefighters didn't know where to position their gear. They parked their firetrucks haphazardly, blocking access for other responders. Communication was hampered by incompatible radio frequencies. Then, there was the preparedness of the firefighters themselves. They knew how to fight structural fires — not wildfires. 

 "The Island was ill equipped to address the 1995 fire," said Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an advocacy group. "Now, we are clearly better equipped than ever."

Still, Amper cautions that the danger of a wildfire always exists — and that the Suffolk preserve is more at risk than ever because of generally rising temperatures and the nonstop march of development.

"We're just going to see more fire," Amper said.

That omnipresent threat has the experts taking all kinds of wildfire prevention measures. 

Fighting fire with fire  

All fire isn't bad. The pine barrens need what experts call "prescribed burns" to thrive. Fire thins a forest, letting sunlight and nutrients through to the soil. Certain trees — the pitch pine and the scrub oak, for example — rely on flames to open their seed pods and eliminate competing vegetation. 

And if nothing burns, all the growth simply fuels a fire that ignites spontaneously or is maliciously set.

After the 1995 wildfire, the commission established a task force to come up with wildfire management plan. One recommendation called for prescribed burns, started by firefighters to reduce the buildup of needles, grasses and brush.

Prescribed burns both in the preserve's grasslands and forests started in the late 1990s, Pavacic said. 

The controlled fires have been set by a number of government agencies such as Suffolk County Parks, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The locations targeted by the state, he said, include the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest, Sarnoff Pine Barrens State Preserve and Peconic River Headwaters, which are all in the central pine barrens.

Today, the commission is getting ready to expand the burn program more into the woodlands through a state grant of $250,000 for each of the next five years, Pavacic said.  

"It knocks down the severity of a fire,"  he said of a prescribed burn. 

On the offensive  

Prescribed burns aren't the only tactic that the commission is using to prevent wildfires.

Every day, on its website, the commission rates the fire danger for the central pine barrens as either low, moderate, high, very high or extreme. The rating assesses how quickly a fire would spread based on temperature, relative humidity and wind speed.   

Lately, Pavacic said, the rating has been low because of high humidity. 

"Humidity helps to keep down the fire risk," he said. "It just won't spread as much."

When the rating is extreme, nearby fire departments can station their equipment strategically and add staff members, he said. Other measures can include a ban on campfires and restricted entry to some areas of the region.

Some years, Pavacic said, firefighters find themselves taking on hundreds of smaller brush fires in the pine barrens. 

Education, too, has a key role in fire prevention. Thousands of firefighters across Long Island have learned how to fight outdoor fires at an academy established by the commission in 1997. This year, training will take place Oct. 18-28 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Certified instructors teach all the classes. 

The commission has set up a program for homeowners near the pine barrens that it calls Firewise. In workshops, homeowners find out what they can do to keep fires from starting on their properties — from not piling up leaves or firewood near the house to not attaching a wooden fence to the house. The next workshop is Aug. 25 at the Ridge firehouse.

Suffolk officials have set aside 25 acres of county land in Yaphank where volunteer firefighters can train. One of the skills is learning how to drive a brush truck, a large off-road vehicle with a water nozzle.

Motivated by memories

Amper, with the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, remembers both the 1995 and 2012 fires vividly. He was terrified for volunteer firefighters responding to the 1995 wildfire, which came to be called the Sunrise Fire.

Flames swallowed the fire trucks venturing into the woodlands, forcing the crews to run.

"These people were just charging in," he  said. "They didn't know how a wildfire can change direction with the wind. It was not something they were trained for."

By 2012, strides had been made. Capt. Timothy Byrnes with the state DEC Division of Forest Protection played the role of liaison to the fire units.

“It was a fantastic response,” he said. “There was a lot of mutual aid. We all felt it was handled well."

Amper doesn't think the response was as good as Byrnes does, but it was markedly improved — "500 percent" better.

"They had learned how to organize, how to have a command center," he said. "You can't just have all these different groups going off on their own. You need a central command, and consistent communication."

Aside from better communication and coordination, Byrnes said, firefighters "have a better understanding of how to operate safer" in a wildfire and have new technologies to  size up a fire.

Today, drones can give a more complete view of a wildfire and can help locate its hot spots. On the ground, firefighters are smarter now about where to position their equipment so they can deploy faster.

Chris Lindberg was on the front lines of the Sunrise Fire. He was a 20-something volunteer with the Lakeland Fire Department in Ronkonkoma. 

He'll never forget wondering why Long Island didn't have a helicopter that could dump giant buckets of water.

"We threw every conceivable agency and piece of equipment at it," said Lindberg, who now is assistant chief of the Manorville Fire Department.

Today, he has firefighters who have been through the wildfire training. The uniforms they wear to fight wildfires are made of a lighter, fire-resistant material. The newer models of brush trucks carry more water and spray it harder and farther.  

"It doesn't beat you up as much," he said of the uniforms.

Now, firefighters can take breaks. Emergency medical technicians are on hand with fans and ice buckets with towels. They check the firefighters' vital signs.

"We used to never have that," he said. "You finished with a fire and you went home and took a shower."

Communication equipment is more sophisticated. It's easier to tune into a shared frequency or direct a helicopter overhead. 

"I think we've come a long way," he said.

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