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Brush fires flare up in eastern Suffolk

Firefighters spray water on a brush fire on

Firefighters spray water on a brush fire on Grumman blvd in Manorville, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Credit: John Roca

Two large brush fires, one started by pieces of an old car, were among several that burned Wednesday afternoon in eastern Suffolk as flames were whipped by high winds, in a month that authorities say has been "abnormally dry."

No one was hurt in those blazes Wednesday, but other, smaller brush fires continued to pop up through the day in parts of Suffolk, authorities said.

Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services said about a half-dozen substantial fires had flared up by 6 p.m. Five departments responded to a brush fire in East Patchogue on Dunton Avenue near a residential area, though the exact acreage of what has burned was not known.

"This is common with the wind the way it is and as dry as it's been," a spokesman for Suffolk Fire Rescue said.

In Westhampton, which suffered the first main brush fire of the day, flames consumed brush along a 2-mile stretch of South Old Country Road, east of Speonk-Riverhead Road, said Southampton Town fire marshal Alfred Tyczkowski.

After the 12:40 p.m. fire was put out about two hours later, fire officials trekked over the burned areas and found pieces of a catalytic converter, Tyczkowski said.

"From what I understand, there were a couple of old clunkers that were on the roadway," the fire marshal said. "We actually found pieces of the catalytic converter."

The part gets "red hot" when the vehicle is running, he said, After the pieces likely flew off the car, they ignited the dry brush and high winds spread the flames, he said.

As firefighters began beating back flames in Westhampton, a separate fire started just before 1 p.m. in neighboring Eastport, drawing scores of volunteers from at least 13 departments, authorities said.

Several small "hot spots" were burning along the edge of Eastport Manor Road when the first firefighters arrived, said Eastport Second Assistant Chief Mike Tortorice. Heavy winds were a problem, he said, and firefighters brought in their own tankers to ensure there was enough water.

"The wind was tough," Tortorice said. "It kept changing direction and intensifying the fire."

The dozen or so homes on Sabrina Drive were evacuated because the flames spread quickly there, burning residential properties, but not the houses, he said. Volunteers on fire engines doused the flames, he said.

"We were very aggressive in attacking the fire," said Tortorice, who also fought the major brush fires in eastern Suffolk in 2012. He said up to 100 firefighters worked on the Eastport blaze. "We had adequate manpower from mutual aid."

Dozens of homes within 100 feet of the road were at risk, but in the end none burned, authorities said. Due to heavy smoke, Eastport Manor Road was shut down between Sunrise Highway and Old Country Road before the fire was put out by 3:30 p.m., authorities said.

The cause of the fire is being investigated by the Brookhaven Town fire marshal's office.

John Urevich, chairman of the Wildfire Task Force for the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, said his job throughout the day was to monitor the fires.

"You've got heavy wind conditions, which has definitely been a problem," he said.

The Centereach Fire Department responded to a brush fire on North Washington Avenue Wednesday evening, a dispatcher said, though he did not have details about the fire's size or what other departments were responding.

With 20- to 35-mph winds and gusts up to 50 mph forecast on Long Island, the National Weather Service on Wednesday warned of conditions that could "promote rapid spread" of brush fires.

A fire ignited at the small, private Hayground School in Bridgehampton when an employee tried to light a wood-burning pizza oven outdoors, the Southampton Town fire marshal's office said. Students and staff were evacuated to a different building, and no one was hurt, authorities said.

The employee was outside about 1:30 p.m. with the portable oven, about 25 feet from one of the school buildings, when he accidentally started a fire in the bush and flower beds, fire marshal Brian Williams said.

"He was using a newspaper to light the oven, and a piece of an ember caught a bush," Williams said. "He tried stomping on it, but as he was stomping it out, it kept getting bigger and bigger."

The flames spread to the wall of the building, and a passing truck driver who was an off-duty Bridgehampton firefighter, tried to douse the flames with his extinguisher.

When Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor fire departments arrived, they went inside the school and moved computers away from the burning wall, saving the equipment, the fire marshal said. "They did a good job," Williams said.

Only the exterior part of the wall burned, he said.

School officials could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.

So far, March has been dry, the weather service said, with precipitation levels about 2 inches below normal in many locations, leaving "fine dead fuels very dry and susceptible to burn and spread."

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows Nassau and western Suffolk counties to be "abnormally dry," the category for areas that are dry but not yet at drought level.

A wind advisory is in effect until 8 p.m. for Long Island, the service said.

Wind gusts of 53 mph at Shirley Airport and 51 at both Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma and Westhampton Airport were reported by automated surface observation systems, the weather service said. Both the Brookhaven Airport in Shirley and Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma saw sustained winds of 37 mph, the service said.

LaGuardia Airport reported average flight arrival delays of 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon due to the wind, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's website. Some departures were also affected there and at Kennedy and MacArthur airports, and the FAA advised travelers to check with airlines about their flight status.

Still, after Wednesday's overnight lows in the teens, Long Island can expect a string of days with no temperatures below freezing, the weather service said.

Thursday's highs are expected to be in the lower 40s, with Friday's and Saturday's in the low- to mid-50s, and Sunday's around 50, Nash said. As for precipitation, look for periods of rain Friday through Sunday, said David Stark, also a weather service meteorologist in Upton.

With Candice Ruud

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