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Fire knocked down at Wheatley Heights arts camp

Firefighters battle a blaze that broke out on

Firefighters battle a blaze that broke out on the grounds of the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts in Wheatley Heights on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A blaze started by lightning destroyed an arts building and damaged two others at a Wheatley Heights summer camp Tuesday night, sending two people to the hospital, authorities said.

Emergency vehicles from four fire departments, one ambulance department and Suffolk police navigated narrow roads just after 7:15 p.m. to battle flames at the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts, located among a wooded area of tall trees. Two people, a firefighter and an employee at the center, sustained minor injuries, officials said.

"One building was completely engulfed on arrival, and on the second building, a quarter of it was on fire," Melville Fire Chief Chris Nolan said at the scene.  

About 75 firefighters had the blaze under control within 45 minutes, but by then, the flames had destroyed what a camp spokeswoman said was a high-ceilinged building that housed art studios. The fire also damaged a second building that appeared to house utilities and a third building that appeared to contain a classroom, Nolan said.

His department had responded to an automatic alarm at the center's administrative building just before 6 p.m. and found a burnt-out electrical transformer that was hit by lightning, he said.

"They had multiple strikes here," the chief said.

Staff from the center checked out the administrative building but did not find any other damage and did not check the entire campus, he said.

Then another alarm at the center sounded at 7:19 p.m., sending firefighters to the fire at the arts building, Nolan said. 

"It could've been smoldering from when we were here the first time," he said.

The narrow roads and one lane access to the center were challenges to emergency vehicles, restricting the number of fire trucks that could be close to the buildings, Nolan said. Firefighters from Melville, East Farmingdale, Dix Hills and Huntington Manor responded and they had to snake the hoses between the trees and the walking paths at the center, he said. Plainview ambulances and Suffolk police also came to the scene.

But one hydrant at the fire scene was enough to put out the flames, he said: "We were lucky enough to have a fire hydrant nearby."

The fires were in the arts area of the campus, a spokeswoman for the center said. The camp had closed for the summer last week, she said.

The blaze comes as the center celebrates its 50th anniversary.

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