Riverhead volunteer firefighters attempt to free a RFD brush truck that got stuck on a fallen oak tree blocking a fire lane in the woods Saturday while battling a wild fire that burned 10 acres.

Three brush trucks were damaged in the Flanders wildfire Saturday afternoon and local fire chiefs are angry about the conditions that caused their department’s vehicles to be damaged and, they say, put volunteer firefighters at unnecessary risk of injury or death.

Fallen dead trees throughout the county-owned preserved woodland southwest of Flanders Road hampered firefighters’ efforts to battle the blaze that burned about 10 acres of pine barrens in the Flanders Fire District, Flanders Fire Chief Joseph Pettit said.

A massive die-off of oak trees in the forest during the mid-2000s left the area littered with thousands of dead trees, some standing and some lying on the ground. Either way, the dead oaks are a potentially deadly hazard for firefighters. The dead trees that remain standing will easily fall during efforts to battle an active wildfire. The trees that have already fallen make the woodlands terrain treacherous. Undergrowth coming up around fallen trees and their stumps shield them from view. Those conditions disabled the three trucks Saturday, Pettit said.

A Flanders Fire Department brush truck got stuck for a while on dead wood. The truck, piloted by a fire department member with more than 30 years experience — the department’s most experienced brush truck operator— Pettit said, was “hung up” on a stump. Fortunately, another truck was able to pull it out, Pettit said. The incident left the truck with a flat tire.

2015_0413_flanders_brush_fire_folo2A Riverhead Fire Department brush truck, also piloted by an experienced driver, got stuck on dead trees lying on the ground. The Riverhead brush truck broke a tie rod and had to be towed out of the woods by another brush truck, Riverhead Fire Chief Joseph Raynor said. It had to be towed from the scene by a private tow company.

“Now it’s out of service until we can get it repaired,” Raynor said. The Riverhead Fire Department has two other brush trucks, he said. The time out of service, the expense of the repairs — and the tow — are all unnecessary, Raynor said.

“This shouldn’t be. It’s only because the land isn’t being properly maintained,” Raynor said. “That dead wood needs to come out of there.”

Flanders fire chiefs say they have been telling that to the county and state custodians of the preserved lands for years, but nothing gets done.

The worst thing, Raynor said, is the prospect of firefighters being stuck in a truck trapped by a wildfire raging around them.

Pettit agrees. “You feel helpless when you’re stuck like that. It’s not a good situation.”

The State Central Pine Barrens Commission in 2013 signed a contract with a Medford Consulting firm, Land Use Ecological Services, to study the entire region and make recommendations for maintenance measures, among other things. The $697,000 contract includes about $200,000 for prescribed burns in the pine barrens region.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation mapped the massive oak die-off in 2008. The forest health unit in the DEC lands and forests division mapped 14,166 acres of “hardwood mortality.” A huge block of “hardwood mortality” on the DEC map is within the Flanders Fire District. Fire chiefs and commissioners have been asking the state and county to remove the dead wood, which provides fuel for wildfires and presents hazards for firefighters battling them.

NYS DEC map showing areas of ‘hardwood mortality’ after a massive oak die-off in the mid 2000s.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has called a press conference in Hauppauge this morning, to announce a partnership between the county and the state Central Pine Barrens Commission to provide Suffolk’s volunteer firefighters “with training to properly and efficiently extinguish wildfires.”

Pettit said yesterday he had not heard anything about it and was curious what it could be about. “Training is always good,” he said, “and it’s always ongoing.”

But what firefighters need most from the county right now, the chief said, is for the county to clean up and remove hazards from its preserved land in the Flanders Fire District.

“When you can’t get safely into the woods — and back out — to fight the fire because fire lanes are obstructed with dead trees, all the training in the world isn’t going to help,” he said.

Fire lane obstructed with fallen dead trees during the wildfire incident in Flanders  Saturday.
Fire lane obstructed with fallen dead trees during the wildfire incident in Flanders Saturday.

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