A walk through the woods with Flanders Fire Chief Joe Pettit Tuesday afternoon got County Legislator Jay Schneiderman all fired up.

2013 0516 schneiderman hedThe overgrown and obstructed fire lanes on county-owned preserved lands are “clearly” a hazard to life and property that must be addressed, Schneiderman said in an interview this afternoon.

“The problem is massive,” Schneiderman said.

“If something ever happened, if a house burned down and someone was killed because firefighters couldn’t get into the woods to fight a wildfire…I would hold myself responsible,” Schneiderman said.

The legislator said he was surprised to learn volunteer firefighters are willing to do the work needed to clear the fire lanes.

“That’s the whole thing,” he said. “This is the county’s land. It’s the county’s obligation and they’re wiling to do it. They’re willing to go out there with chain saws and heavy equipment and get the job done — at no cost to the county,” Schneiderman said.

“How can anyone have a problem with that?”

All the fire district needs is the county’s permission, Schneiderman said, and that’s exactly what he aims to get them.

He said he’s spoken with the county attorney and is drafting an intermunicipal agreement to authorize the Flanders Fire District to do the work. He plans to introduce a resolution authorizing the agreement at the legislature’s next general meeting May 12. From there, it will go to a committee for consideration and recommendation. If referred out of committee, as he said he expects it will be, the measure will be put to a vote in June.

“Then you’re just dealing with the bureaucracy of getting it signed,” Schneiderman said. “Hopefully there won’t be too much opposition,” he said. “I think it’s going to work out fine.”

Schneiderman took his walk with Pettit during the mid-day recess of Tuesday’s legislature meeting, which was held in Riverhead. He’d set that up after watching the RiverheadLOCAL video depicting the condition of the Flanders pine barrens. The video was shot during an April 11 wildfire. Flanders and Riverhead fire department brush trucks making their way into the woods got stuck on dead trees and stumps. The Flanders truck was pulled out by another department and continued to battle the fire. The Riverhead truck snapped a tie rod and had to be towed out of the woods and back to its headquarters.

Flanders fire chiefs have been complaining about the overgrown fire lanes and the number of dead oak trees on preserved land owned by both the county and the state. The area was affected by a massive oak die-off a decade ago.

Pettit said Schneiderman asked the fire district to advise the county where the fire lanes historically existed. They were mapped at one time, the fire chief said and he will get those maps to the county.

He said he plans to ask surrounding fire districts for help with the project and also hopes the county fire academy, which holds classes to train firefighters on using chain saws during wildfire operations, might be able to help by holding those classes in the Flanders pine barrens.

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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.