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New Manorville fire sparks evacuations

A firefighter calls for water hookup as he

A firefighter calls for water hookup as he battles a brush fire on Weeks Avenue in Manorville. (April 17, 2012) Credit: John Roca

A major brush fire -- the second in a week -- came within hundreds of feet of homes and a day care center in Manorville Tuesday as officials worried about "tinderbox" conditions.

More than 300 homes were temporarily evacuated by the latest blaze, which scorched 150 acres south of the Long Island Expressway near Weeks Avenue and South Street before it was contained.

No homes were reported damaged and there were no injuries, officials said. The cause wasn't immediately known.

"Looks like we dodged a bullet," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at the scene.

Manorville Fire Chief Elio Zapparrata said the blaze came within 200 feet of East End Kids Academy, a day care and preschool center. Some parents came to the center to pick up their children. Other kids were taken to the Manorville Fire Department to be retrieved, Zapparrata said.

Manorville firefighter Chris Steele, whose company was among the first on the scene when the fire started about 1:30 p.m. west of Weeks Avenue, said the blaze seemed easy to control at first.

"We got a good hit on it," he said, "but the winds picked up and it took off. It got to the top of the trees . . . about 80 feet high."

The fire quickly moved east. Firefighters chased it from behind, then raced to get in front and keep the flames from jumping Weeks Avenue, Steele said.

"We had engines around all the houses," he said. "It was hot and nasty."

It took firefighters about two hours to contain the blaze. The evacuation order was lifted at 5:30 p.m.

Lauren Nash, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Upton, said low humidity and wind gusts of up to 25 mph created ideal conditions for a wildfire Tuesday.

"When the wind is a bit strong, it could move that fire a lot quicker," she said.

Taking note of nearby wildfires last week that scorched 1,100 acres and caused $1 million in damage just north of the LIE, Bellone warned, "At some point our luck is going to run out and something tragic is going to happen."

He cautioned: "No one should be burning anything outside."

Mark Lesko, Brookhaven Town supervisor, said the pine barrens, where both recent fires erupted, is prone to wildfires, with "thousands and thousands of acres of forest -- and potentially thousands of acres of fuel."

"Firefighters were on this fire incredibly quickly; that's one piece of the puzzle," he said. "Another major piece is to prepare for these fires with prescribed burn work where you shut down areas for the fire to flow through."

Lesko said he plans to request funding for controlled burns through the Pine Barrens Commission at a commission meeting Wednesday at Brookhaven Town Hall.

"The problem we have is that now we are literally sitting on what amounts to a tinderbox and most of that is in Brookhaven," Lesko said. "Any small fire -- someone flicking a cigarette, people burning leaves -- has the potential to start a huge forest fire right now."

The Pine Barrens Commission, made up of county, town and other officials, has funded prescribed burns in the past, but Lesko said funding issues have stalled the program.

Nelson Vaz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton, said there's a 60 percent chance of rain this weekend.

Up to an inch of rain could fall, dampening the dry brush on Long Island, he said.

"That will alleviate things a little while," Vaz said. "If we start seeing more of the green-up, which we're starting to see with leaves budding on trees and vegetation growth, that could buy us some time."

During Tuesday's fire, residents and workers in the Manorville area were confronted with giant plumes of smoke as the fire raged through a wooded area filled with dry underbrush.

Chris Chiofalo, who lives on Weeks Avenue, said he cut through the thorny woods to get to his house after police wouldn't let him through. He had picked up his 17-year-old son from Eastport-South Manor High School.

As the fire approached, he vowed, "I will not leave until it's three houses away from us."

Dennis Burke, 30, a Manorville resident who lives on Dawnwood Drive, said he watched the blaze from work, at Island International in Calverton.

"I stuck my head outside the shop at about 2:30 and I saw white smoke. Then I stuck my head out 10 minutes later and saw black smoke," he said.

"I've lived here my whole life," he said. "I remember the wildfires of '95. It gets you thinking a little bit about the weather."

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