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20 years later, experts review how Sunrise Fire changed LI firefighting

Firefighters stand on a mound as the Sunrise

Firefighters stand on a mound as the Sunrise Fire burns on Aug. 25, 1995, in Southampton Town. Photo Credit: Newsday / Bill Davis

The first sparks began in Eastport during a dry August month that hadn't seen a drop of rain in 19 days.

As the fire gathered momentum and moved into Westhampton, flames reached as high as 200 feet and wind-fed embers jumped Sunrise Highway, shutting off access to the Hamptons at the height of summer.

More than 400 people were evacuated, 25 firefighters suffered minor injuries and help came from every fire district on Long Island plus New York City, 10 states and federal agencies.

By the time the last flames were stamped out, September had arrived and 4,500 acres were burned.

"Everything was very dry and there wasn't much humidity and the fire got going," said Dean Culver, a fire commissioner with Westhampton Beach Fire Department who was chief at the time. "Everything was just ripe for it."

So goes the story of the Sunrise Fire, which began 20 years ago Monday in the central pine barrens of Suffolk County and changed the way Long Island thought about wildfires and how to beat them back.

The fire, which at the time was the second-largest in the state, came on the heels of another pine barrens fire in Rocky Point that consumed 2,500 acres and was just ending as the Sunrise Fire began. Together they account for 7,000 burned acres.

"There had never been such a large wildfire like that on Long Island," said Cathy Kittle, who was a state Department of Environmental Conservation public information officer at the time and now works for the agency in Albany. "It was threatening a few communities."

The fire jumped Sunrise just as Kittle was ending a news conference on an overpass near the scene. "It was scary because the flames were as high as I ever saw," she said. "It was scary how fast it went that way."

Though no one was killed and about a dozen homes were scorched but not destroyed, the twin blazes got attention both for the heroics and problems they highlighted.

In Rocky Point, state employees who worked as engineers, secretaries and tidal wetland investigators suddenly became volunteer firefighters, mopping up hot spots as trained crews ran to the Sunrise Fire.

"We didn't have any fire tools," said Chuck Hamilton, who at the time was the DEC's regional natural resources director on Long Island. "We had to buy rakes and shovels."

But communication was haphazard, radio frequencies jammed and command passed from Culver and an Eastport fire chief to the county, then state, and to federal authorities as the days pressed on, leading to confusion. Some promises of aid, such as C-130 airplanes to drop water, didn't arrive at the height of need.

"It was just so new and so large to us," Hamilton said. "You hadn't seen anything like that. We were very fortunate."

The fire was so fierce it obliterated whole areas of plant life. "There were holes in the ground where the fire hit standing dead trees or stumps," said Marilyn Jordan, a senior conservation scientist who retired in 2014 from The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. "It burned right down. The roots burned underground. I had never seen a fire like that."

After the smoke cleared, the tally to fight the fire was $5.2 million and involved 150 entities, including Nassau and Suffolk counties, 118 fire department and ambulance companies and 17 towns and villages.

Challenges exposed

The fire highlighted the complexities of the central pine barrens, a protected area where development is limited and jurisdiction is apportioned among 17 volunteer fire districts and the federal government, state, county, three towns and several villages.

It also brought to light the very different way fire behaves in the wild as opposed to inside buildings, which was most of what local fire districts were trained to fight.

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission formed a task force on wildfires. A wildfire management plan was adopted and daily fire weather reports were issued so departments would know what they faced.

A wildfire academy, tasked with training firefighters for fighting fires outdoors, was established and run by Hamilton, an East Setauket resident who now is logistics chief for the state Incident Management Team. He is also deputy logistics chief for the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team.

"It was a very different time," Hamilton said. "We're in better shape."

The dangers of wildfires were again exposed in 2012 when a fire broke out in Manorville and Ridge in the pine barrens, burning 1,123 acres, injuring three firefighters, causing thousands of evacuations and requiring help from nearly 100 fire departments.

A report on that fire said command procedures were ignored, communication was hampered by incompatible radio frequencies, and haphazardly parked vehicles from responding crews hampered access for others.

Continued training, burning away fuel loads and awareness are key, Hamilton said. "As time goes on, memories fade," he said.

More training, gear needed

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the anniversary is a time to call attention to problems. He believes better training, appropriate fire gear and more prescribed burns are needed.

"It was an amazing achievement of the firefighters 20 years ago and we learned a lot about limiting the size of fire and how to fight them," Amper said. "It isn't as though we didn't learn. It's as though we haven't used what we learned."

The pine barrens is a fire-dependent ecosystem. A lot of the vegetation, such as pitch pine, scrub oak and wintergreen, needs fire to open seed pods and remove competition. Fire also allows for sunlight to penetrate deeper and add nutrients to the soil. But when nothing burns, all that vegetation serves as fuel to power a fire.

"You don't want things to go unburned for so long that when they do burn they're exceedingly hot," Jordan said.

Prevention and preparation

Today, signs of the Sunrise Fire are hard to see. Jordan was out recently and had trouble finding old paths through the damaged areas. "It grew up so much," Jordan said.

In the year of the Manorville-Ridge fire, 102.3 acres were burned to train crews and reduce fire fuel. In 2013, it was 239 acres, followed by 4 in 2014 and none so far in 2015 because of poor weather conditions.

Efforts are ongoing to enhance wildfire training, continue burns and educate homeowners on how to safeguard property, said John Pavacic, executive director of the pine barrens commission, which oversees development and land use in protected areas.

The commission, the DEC and Suffolk County recently announced a wildfire hazard mitigation plan in Flanders that calls for prescribed burns, creating access for wildfire engines and reducing fire fuel.

A vacant parcel of Suffolk County land in Yaphank has been dedicated as training ground to teach volunteer firefighters how to drive brush trucks and battle wildfires.

Ridge and Manorville are also working on planning documents detailing how to care for property. For public lands, that means creating fire breaks so flames can't travel. For residences, it means not using wood chips near homes, keeping leaves, shrubs and bushes away from houses and having fireproofed shingles.

"Simple things can be done and implemented," Pavacic said.


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