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From the archives: Wildfire scorches the East End

Smoke and flames seen from Montauk Highway looking

Smoke and flames seen from Montauk Highway looking toward Westhampton Beach around 7 p.m. in Aug. 24, 1995, during what was called the Sunrise Fire. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

This story was first published in Newsday on Aug. 25, 1995

Like a red and yellow fence, fire trucks snaked nose-to-tail up Beaver Lane West behind firefighters who were in the midst of hand-to-flame combat against the Westhampton blaze.

Hundreds of men dug ditches and turned water against the flames in an attempt to make a stand north of Montauk Highway. At least 50-foot-tall flames swept within feet of the trucks. One issued a radio plea for help:

"We need the Coast Guard! We don't want to get our asses kicked again."

From a command truck, came the order, "It's coming. Pull out! Pull out! Everybody get out!"

The wind had shifted again, and like leaves in the breeze, fire trucks scrambled to get out of Beaver Lane. Such was the fight last night [Aug. 24, 1995] in Westhampton, a constant series of small victories and close calls against a monster fire. Volunteer firefighters held the line as long as they could against flames so hot they made trees explode.

Despite hours of action, firefighters fueled by adrenaline rested only for minutes before attacking the flames again.

"It looks like daytime in there," said Mike Nagerle of the Halesite Fire Department. "It's a real cooker."

"Every time there's a wind gust it jumps 15 yards," said Pete Guido of the Halesite Fire Department. "It's coming faster than we can hook up the trucks."

Two blocks west, on Depot Road, Jeff Dillon of the Farmingdale Fire Department said he fought his own fear along with the flames.

"It looked like the last day on the Earth," he said. "I was about to run down the block. I can't believe these houses are still standing."

Trucks headed into the blaze like troop carriers going to war. As many as 20 firefighters hung off the outside of trucks and waved and cheered to their buddies on the way to the front lines.

When they came out, soaked in sweat and covered in soot, they would rest for about 15 minutes and do it again.

"You grab a soda, catch a rest and do the best you can," said Roger Gabor of the Orient Fire Department, as he lay sprawled across someone's front lawn on Depot Road.

Earlier, on the Speonk-Riverhead Road over Sunrise Highway where officials had set up the command center to direct the battle against the raging Westhampton brushfire, David Fischler called for any kind of emergency equipment he could get.

Fischler, the Suffolk commissioner of fire, rescue and emergency services, was especially thirsty for stump jumpers -- trucks that can go through heavily wooded areas -- pumpers and tanker trucks, said the deputy commissioner, Frederick Daniels.

Through the evening, trucks arrived from all over Suffolk and Nassau. As they arrived from the west on Sunrise Highway they mustered in a staging area on Speonk-Riverhead Road.

Eastport Fire Chief Jim Baker, the commander of the center, called them forward to another staging area as they were needed. An on-scene chief dispatched the trucks to the fire from there.

Officials were trying desperately to get bulldozers from any source they could last night to build an earthen berm as a fire line. But they had little success.

In the barely controlled scene, Deputy Suffolk County Executive John Gallagher insisted the fire was in hand.

"What's killing us is the wind. If it shifts, we'll be in trouble."

Before dark, visibility was less than a mile because of smoke.

The Speonk-Riverhead Road bridge across Sunrise Highway was packed with fire apparatus, helicopters, TV trucks, police cars and emergency equipment. To the west, Sunrise Highway was lined with all kinds of arriving emergency vehicles.

Officials used the Nassau Fire Rescue truck for command center because the Suffolk truck was still in Rocky Point. Baker and other fire chiefs huddled around a table trying to plot strategy as the fire burned on.

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