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Firefighters 'primed' for wildfire season

Firefighter Chris Dellavalle of the Manorville Fire Department

Firefighter Chris Dellavalle of the Manorville Fire Department rests on the front bumper of a truck. (April 10, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A scorched, ruined truck parked across from the Manorville Fire Department headquarters stands as a reminder of the dangers of wildfire season on Long Island.

Already this month, two fires have burned more than 1,200 acres of pine barrens in and around the Manorville department's 56-square-mile coverage area. The blazes destroyed three homes and damaged many more. Three Manorville firefighters were injured in the first fire when their truck -- the one parked across the street -- became trapped by flames.

"We almost had three funerals here," Manorville volunteer Chris Lindberg said. "It's a reminder of how quick things can change in a fire."

Fighting the two blazes has left the volunteers weary, but aware that their work for this fire season is just starting. Despite a day of heavy rains last week, Long Island remains under what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called "severe" drought conditions.

"This is one of the busiest months I can recall," said Lindberg, 47, who has decades of firefighting experience. "We're still primed for another one."

Manorville firefighter Eric Weissbard, 50, called conditions in the pine barrens -- piles of fallen needles, leaves and debris -- "the perfect storm." The first fire, which ignited on April 9, burned more than 1,100 acres.

During a brief break on April 10, he sat on the ground in front of the firehouse, too tired to even take off his boots, he said. Another call came in, and he got back on the truck.

"There are guys who are going every single day to each call" to fight the wildfires, Weissbard said. "You can spend two, three days on the truck."

The second fire, on April 17, was extinguished that same day after burning 150 acres, but required hours of work by many of the firefighters still tired from fighting the previous week's blaze.

"Their response was extraordinary, to put it bluntly," Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko said. "We're proud of all our fire departments, but Manorville, they are extraordinary. They have a huge area that they cover, and they are a very motivated, very well-trained fire department."

Many of the volunteer department's 90 members responded to the fires knowing their own homes and families might be in the path of danger.

"My phone rang, and the fire marshal said the fire was headed directly to my house," Weissbard said of the first blaze. That fire was a hundred feet from his farm on North Street when it was contained, he said.

Every fire is a reminder of how quickly things can change, said Lindberg, a friend of New York City Firefighter Lt. Richard Nappi of Farmingville, who died of cardiac arrest after responding to a Brooklyn fire on April 16. Nappi also volunteered with the Farmingville department.

Firefighting is often personal for volunteer departments like those on Long Island, said David Jacobowitz, president of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York. "We receive so much from the community, and there's a feeling of giving back," he said.

During the first fire, Lindberg's wife, Regina, and several other firefighter wives gathered in the firehouse kitchen to prepare about 1,000 sandwiches to feed department personnel.

"We had 80 loaves of bread, and 20 pounds each" of cold cuts and cheese, she said.

While the Manorville department is small compared with some others on Long Island, it is the largest in the pine barrens area of central Suffolk County, said second assistant chief Sal D'Amato, 44.

Many Manorville volunteers took time off from their jobs to fight this month's fires, he said. Others worked their regular jobs during the day then went out to the fire line at night.

"It wasn't thousands of guys who do this professionally who stopped it," Weissbard said. "No one said, 'It's the end of my shift and it's time to go home.' We're the ones who are going to save our community."

All 109 Suffolk fire departments and more than a dozen from Nassau were activated for the first fire. After many went home, Manorville firefighters were still working, scouring the pine barrens for hot spots.

"The guys, they worked until they thought they had nothing left, and they got up and worked more," Lindberg said.

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