Updated, 7:30 p.m.- A wild fire in the Flanders pine barrens burned about 10 acres of woodlands this afternoon, according to Flanders Fire Chief Joseph Pettit.

The fire burned county preserve land and some private property southwest of Flanders Road, opposite and southeast of Longneck Boulevard, Pettit said.

Seven area fire departments — Riverhead, Hampton Bays, Westhampton, Southampton, East Quogue and Quogue — responded to the scene with brush trucks and tankers. Pettit credited firefighters’ quick response with containing the fire and ensuring the safety of nearby homes.

Today’s incident had the potential for disaster, Pettit said. Strong winds and low relative humidity elevated the risk of wildfire spread this afternoon, according to a special statement issued by the National Weather Service at 2:27 p.m.

In addition to strong, gusty winds firefighters had to contend with a landscape littered with fallen dead oak trees in the pine barrens woodlands. The woodlands in the Flanders Fire District haven’t burned — a natural, cyclical occurrence in the fire-dependent pine barrens ecosystem — since the 1960s. But in addition to typical conditions of the pine barrens forest floor, there are countless dead oaks scattered throughout thousands of acres of the pine barrens following a massive die-off in the mid-2000s.

Flanders fire chiefs have been complaining for years about the condition of the forest in their district, where hundreds of homes are tucked into 11,000 acres of preserved pine barrens. A lack of maintenance by the government entities that own the preserved woodlands has created a dangerous situation, according to the chiefs.

A succession of chiefs of the volunteer department have lobbied the state and county to undertake basic maintenance, but nothing happens, Pettit told RiverheadLOCAL last week.

Fortunately the fire remained at ground level, Pettit said. Flame height reached a maximum of about five feet, Pettit said a state forest ranger on scene told him. The flames never got up into the forest canopy, the chief said. If there’s one positive thing about all the dead oaks, it’s “there’s not much canopy left for the fire to get into,” Pettit said.

Three brush trucks were damaged by dead trees today, Pettit said.

“We got a flat. Westhampton broke a brake line,” he said. Riverhead’s brush truck got stuck on downed dead trees and had to be towed out of the woods. It was towed from Flanders Road by Jet Towing.

“The dead oaks — the downed ones — were definitely an issue,” Pettit said.
“We had a hard time getting over the dead trees to get to where we needed to go,” Pettit said.

“Maybe it opened some eyes,” the chief said of today’s brush fire. “I sure hope so.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos and video by Peter Blasl.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.