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Fire damages century-old ice house at Quogue Wildlife Refuge

The second floor of the Quogue Wildlife Refuge

The second floor of the Quogue Wildlife Refuge ice house is charred on Tuesday, July 4, 2017, after a morning fire. Credit: Quogue Wildlife Refuge / Marisa Nelson

A century-old building known as the ice house was damaged at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge in an early morning fire, which burned Tuesday several yards from the complex housing animals, according to a refuge official.

Executive director Michael Nelson, who lives on-site, said he grabbed a fire extinguisher about 2:30 a.m. and aimed it at flames burning one wall of the Ice Harvesting Museum, trying to control the spread until firefighters arrived.

“I was upset,” recounted Nelson, also a Quogue assistant fire chief. “I did think we were going to lose the entire building. We were ready in case we had to move the animals if it started to spread. That was our top priority, in making sure that people and animals were safe.”

As they doused the flames, Quogue and Westhampton Beach firefighters carried out ice harvesting tools and other antiques from the first-floor museum, which was largely intact, the executive director said. The second floor, used as storage space, had significant charring and other damage but can be restored, he said.

An electrical malfunction may have caused the fire, he said.

Nelson said he woke up and saw flames shooting out a second-floor window of the museum, across the parking lot from his home. Two windows had blown out, allowing the flames to vent out rather than wreak destruction inside, he said.

“I keep trying to figure out how or why I was able to get up and look out the window,” Nelson said Tuesday afternoon, “but I’m just grateful that I did.”

The 305-acre refuge has an outdoor complex that is 25 feet from the museum and houses rehabilitated animals that can no longer survive in the wild, including red foxes and birds of prey.

With roots dating to 1934, the refuge was the idea of local duck hunters and conservationists concerned about the black ducks, a breed in decline after several harsh winters. According to the refuge’s website, one founding member, Charlie Belt, suggested creating a waterfowl refuge to “put two ducks in the air for every one we take.”

They got land that had been part of the Quogue Ice Company, which cut ice blocks out of a nearby pond to sell but whose business dropped off with the invention of refrigerators.

That included the ice house, where the ice was stored and which housed the steam engine that powered machinery used to hoist frozen blocks up to 10 inches thick, according to an 1899 Brooklyn Eagle article announcing the start of the company’s ice harvesting season.

It was inside the ice house that hunters and conservationists met to plan the rescue of black ducks. On their own time, they cut ice from the nearby pond so the black ducks could swim, according to the refuge’s history section, and in one year alone, they prepared 30 tons of a grain-potato mix to feed the fowl.

Nelson says he is not just looking for donations to restore the fire-damaged ice house but also to rebuild it the old-fashioned way, using material and methods of the ice house era.

“I think it’s a gem in the community and even Long Island,” Nelson said. “That is one piece that shows how the community worked in the past. It has a lot of history to it, and I think that’s important to keep, especially in this day and age when it’s sometimes cheaper to knock something down and build it from scratch.”

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