The county and state should clear and maintain fire lanes on publicly owned preserved land in the pine barrens, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman told RiverheadLOCAL yesterday.

“I understand the necessity for clear fire lanes for all fire departments and first responders that risk their lives for the health and safety of the community,” Schneiderman wrote in an April 22 letter to Flanders Fire Chief Joseph Pettit.

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County Legislator Jay Schneiderman

The legislator, whose South Fork district encompasses the Flanders pine barrens said as soon as he saw the reports on the condition of the woods and the RiverheadLOCAL video documenting the April 11 brush fire there, he “immediately contacted” the county parks commissioner to ask him “to remedy this dangerous hazard.”

Schneiderman said Suffolk County Parks Commissioner Greg Dawson acknowledged the county used to maintain the fire lanes but has not done so in years.

“There was a lot of shoulder shrugging,” Schneiderman said of this conversation with the parks commissioner. Dawson told the legislator the parks department doesn’t have the resources to do the work.

“He didn’t even seem to know where the fire lanes were,” Schneiderman said.

“There’s got to be a way for the government to deal with this,” he said. “I just don’t yet have a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Schneiderman asked Pettit on Wednesday, asking him to “assist the county by identifying the most critical access roads and the approximate location of major obstacles that prevent access by fire fighting vehicles.”

After these obstructions are identified, Schneiderman wrote, “the county can then assign the appropriate staff to resolve this matter.”

“I’m happy we’re finally getting someone in government to advocate for us,” Pettit said in an interview last night.

Schneiderman said he also wrote to Joe Williams, Suffolk County Commissioner of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services last week but has not had a response.

Williams is aware of the situation, Pettit said. He said Flanders fire chiefs met a few years ago with Suffolk’s head of emergency management Ed Schneider and then-chairman of the Central Pine Barrens Commission’s wildfire task force, John Urevich. Urevich, a Riverhead firefighter, died suddenly last April at age 48. John “Chip” Bancroft, of Westhampton, has replaced Urevich in the role on the task force.

John Pavacic, executive director, N.Y. Central Pine Barrens Commission

The Central Pine Barrens Commission does not own any land but has regulatory authority over land uses in the pine barrens. It is currently conducting a survey and assessment of the entire pine barrens region. The study includes identifying and mapping existing fire lanes, according to Pine Barrens Commission executive director John Pavacic.

The commission’s consultant under the $697,000, five-year contract, Land Use Ecological Services of Medford, will make recommendations to the commission on which fire lanes should be addressed and which areas should be targeted for controlled burns, Pavacic said in an interview last week. Controlled burns are used to reduce “fuel load” in the forest. The Land Use contract includes more than $260,000 to fund the actual field work.

The commission will present those recommendations to area fire departments for feedback by the end of this year, Pavacic said. Work would begin next winter or spring, he said.

Regulators are reluctant to clear fire lanes due to the sensitive ecology of the pine barrens. Clearing the fire lanes makes them more accessible ATVs and dirt bikes as well as to people dumping wastes — all illegal activities. In the past, rangers have even dropped trees across the access roads to prevent entry, according to Flanders chiefs.

Pavacic said recommended clearing will probably be limited. He said lanes could be cleared to a point, allowing firefighters to enter the woods by truck but requiring them to run a hose on foot deeper into the woods to fight a fire.

2015_0409_flanders_brush_truckThe Flanders fire chief does not like that idea at all. There are so many standing dead oak trees in the Flanders pine barrens after a massive die-off a decade ago, even brush trucks are not allowed in the woods unless they are equipped with cages to protect firefighters from falling dead trees. Firefighters call those trees “widow-makers.”

“We’ve been complaining about these conditions for more than six years,” Pettit said. “Nothing’s been done. Hopefully now that people are starting to pay attention, this will be addressed before a disaster happens.”

Pettit said he intends to invite Schneiderman to tour the woods with him so the legislator can see conditions there with his own eyes.

“You can’t look at this and come to any other conclusion,” he said.

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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.