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Pine barrens group to improve fire response

Lush new growth, including low brush blueberry and

Lush new growth, including low brush blueberry and huckleberry, rises up from the understory after a fire that scorched large sections of pine barren forrest near Schultz road in Manorville. (June 19, 2012) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Efforts are under way to identify water sources in the pine barrens, better train firefighters and revise an outdated fire management plan to avoid problems like those that hindered emergency response during the Ridge-Manorville wildfire three months ago.

The Central Pine Barrens Commission is focusing on those issues to improve fire response and protection in the area that has more animal and plant species than anywhere else in the state.

"There's no one thing that is going to be the panacea or the magic bullet for dealing with future wildfires," commission executive director John Pavacic said.

Commission chairman Peter A. Scully detailed the plan in a June 11 memo to the other members of the group -- the Riverhead, Brookhaven and Southampton town supervisors and Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone. The commission oversees land management, conservation and stewardship in the 160-square-mile pine barrens.

The official cause of the 1,123-acre Ridge-Manorville fire, which destroyed several buildings and injured three firefighters, has not been publicly released, nor has a Suffolk County report assessing the firefighting efforts.

"It's been a very, very long time, many years, since we've had a fire of this intensity and size," Pavacic said. "There are things we should be moving forward with."

Nature is already moving ahead. Near Schultz Road in Manorville, where the fire jumped the two-lane street, lush green sprouts of blueberry and huckleberry bushes have emerged from the ground, the color broken only by dark, burned and mostly limbless trunks of pitch pine trees.

"This was completely blackened, not a sign of green left," Rob Marsh, a natural resources supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said during a tour of the area 10 weeks after the fire. "Now you have a lot more sunlight reaching the ground. The plant life responds rapidly."

Lightly burned areas should rebound first with berry bushes and scrub oak, then pitch pine trees, he said. In sections where the fire burned hotter, the pines may be slower to grow or not come back at all.

"Some will survive," Marsh said. "Some are pulling energy from the roots. Some will die off."

Knowing the location of water sources throughout the pine barrens is critical to fighting fires, officials said.

Finding water created problems during the Ridge-Manorville fire when some crews from the more than 100 Suffolk and Nassau fire departments that responded couldn't find sources, slowing their efforts.

To avoid similar problems in the future, commission staff members and its Wildfire Task Force subcommittee will create an inventory of natural and other water sources, including pools and recharge basins.

"If all of these sources of water are pre-identified prior to a wildfire, that could potentially be useful information during a wildfire crisis," Pavacic said.

In addition to identifying existing water supplies, the commission is reviewing a proposal to drill wells for use during an emergency.

Extending the Riverhead Water District into the pine barrens has also been considered, but the cost would be prohibitive, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said. "I'm only interested in one major thing, and that's getting wells in Manorville," he said.

The commission also is developing an outreach campaign to promote its annual Wildfire and Incident Management Academy. Basic firefighting and wildfire behavior classes are free for volunteer firefighters from Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The academy, held in late October, draws 300 to 400 firefighters from across the country and state, but only about 10 percent are from Long Island, said John Urevich, chairman of the Academy and the commission's Wildfire Task Force.

Learning about the effects of drought conditions, wind speed and other factors is critical to properly fight a wildfire, said Urevich, who has been a fire dispatcher for several departments since 1986.

New in 2012 is a course to help firefighters who typically work structure fires understand how to attack wildfires that also imperil buildings. The class had been scheduled before the Ridge-Manorville fire.

The commission this month plans to redistribute a 1999 Fire Management Plan to the 43 local, state and federal members of the Wildfire Task Force. The plan details response priorities for wildfires, incident command procedures and communications protocol. The commission also will review the plan with local fire departments and update the document annually.

The plan needs "to be sort of dusted off and reinvigorated," Scully said at the June commission meeting.

The commission also is working to develop a prescribed burn plan for the pine barrens to set small fires in critical areas to reduce the danger of uncontrolled fires.

Another element of the plan is to bring the national "Firewise" program to the area to help property owners learn how to protect structures from wildfires.

The Ridge-Manorville fire

Started: early afternoon on April 9. Two separate fires, one near Ridge and one near Manorville, later combined.

Declared contained: midmorning on April 12.

Acres burned: 1,123

Cause: remains under investigation.

Firefighting effort: more than 100 fire and rescue units in Suffolk and Nassau county responded.

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