The fire that reduced an oceanfront Fire Island home to ash Wednesday, and seriously damaged a second, illustrated the difficulties of stopping blazes on an isolated spit of land that is sparsely populated in winter, officials and homeowners said.
Walter Boss, 58, a firefighter with the Fire Island Pines Fire Department and one of the first to reach the engulfed home in Water Park, said a series of circumstances - little manpower, new wells, below-freezing temperatures, ferry-blocking ice in the Great South Bay - conspired to make the early morning blaze especially challenging.
"This one was extreme. Usually we can get four or five guys out there, even in the winter," said Boss, a contractor and 38-year resident of Fire Island. "This time we started with three guys."
With no one living in any of the community's 50 homes - many wood-framed and closely situated - the fire on West Walk was first spotted at 12:43 a.m. by a Suffolk police helicopter. It took more than half an hour before the first truck from Fire Island Pines reached the scene at 1:17 a.m., according to county fire records.
With the house already engulfed, Boss said, he and two others began the process of positioning a four-wheel-drive fire truck on the beach to draw water from newly installed and unfamiliar wells. "It took 20 minutes to get water out of the well. It seemed like an eternity," he said.
As they poured water on the home and were joined by a smattering of volunteers from the Ocean Bay Park and Ocean Beach departments, word reached them that Sayville and Bayport fire personnel had been turned back because ice in the bay prevented ferry service. Instead, Mastic and Mastic Beach departments had to drive 13 miles from the east.
"Normally we'd have a lot more help on the way. On this one we were really shortchanged," Boss said.
A second wood-frame home about 50 feet away from the main blaze was substantially damaged as winds carried flames and heat across a boardwalk. The owner of the home, David Blum, 80, of Ownings Mills, Md., said he counted himself lucky.
"It's really a loss. The couple put so much into it and to see it destroyed like that," he said of his summer neighbors. "My house could have gone up in another two or three minutes, but it's repairable."
Last summer, six wells were installed at the entrance to public boardwalks that access Water Island homes. Despite the improvement, the dearth of fire-spotting eyes leaves the homes vulnerable.
"Fire is a constant concern, especially in the winter when fire departments in the area aren't really staffed," said Gerard Stoddard, a longtime Fire Island summer resident. A Town of Brookhaven spokeswoman said fire marshals were on the scene investigating. Messages left for the owner of the destroyed home were not returned Wednesday.