Today marks the 10th anniversary of a wildfire that burned more than 1,100 acres of Pine Barrens in Manorville, Ridge and Calverton.
The fire, later ruled to have been intentionally set, burned for more than 24 hours.
Every one of Suffolk County’s 109 fire departments responded to battle the blaze, which ultimately destroyed three homes, a commercial building and several vehicles — including fire department brush trucks.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life, though three firefighters were injured when the brush truck they were in was surrounded by fire and they had to leave the vehicle to fight their way out of the burning pines on foot. One of them, William Hille of Manorville, sustained second-degree burns to his face and arms and was admitted to the burn unit at Stony Brook University Hospital.
On April 9, 2012, conditions were perfect for a wildfire to spread. The air was very dry — relative humidity was around 20% — and strong, gusty winds were blowing from the west. Early that morning, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for elevated wild fire risk on Long Island, the second time in three days such a warning was posted.
The fire started mid-afternoon that day on the northeast corner of land belonging to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, an area where lab employees rarely venture, BNL natural resources manager, Tim Green told RiverheadLOCAL at the time. The lab property there was not fenced off, he noted. A residential neighborhood lies just to the north.
Driven by 25 mph winds and gusts up to 40 mph, the flames spread quickly westward and upward — making the dangerous move from ground to canopy. It then moved rapidly on the canopy.
The fire prompted evacuation orders in the region and the declaration of a state of emergency in Suffolk County.
It took two days for firefighters to bring the blaze under control, with the help of aviation units called in from other parts of the state.
Suffolk County Police and the Suffolk County Arson Task Force each offered $5,000 rewards for information leading to an arrest of the individual who set the April 9, 2012 fire. No arrest has been made. Anyone with information about the arson is asked to call Suffolk County Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS. Callers may be eligible for the cash reward and calls will remain confidential, police said.
Dubbed the “Crescent Bow” fire, the Manorville-Ridge-Calverton fire is the third-largest wildfire in Suffolk County since 1964, according to state records, following the 1995 “Sunrise fire,” which burned 3,198 acres and the 1995 Rocky Point fire, which burned about 1,395 acres. Those two wildfires occurred within days of each other that August.
The Crescent Bow fire underscored the need for more access to water for firefighting purposes in the remote Pine Barrens region, which is not served by public water and firefighters must rely on tanker trucks for water supplies. Suffolk County, through the efforts of then-County Legislator Ed Romaine, approved funding for fire suppression wells in the area.
Those wells are “definitely a help, without a doubt,” current Manorville Fire Department Chief Joe Danowski said in an interview today.
But the risk of wildfires in the region remains great, he said, especially with recent beetle infestations killing trees, creating more wildfire “fuel.” The dead trees pose hazards to firefighters, both from risk of injury when the trees fall during firefighting operations and because fallen trees make it all the more difficult to navigate the woods in brush trucks.
“It’s just another danger now that’s in the woods,” Danowski said.
See prior coverage of this issue: Three years after wildfire ripped through pine barrens in Manorville, Flanders fire chiefs worry and wait
The pine barrens is a fire-prone ecosystem, since fires are part of the natural growth cycle of the ecosystem. The State Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, charged with stewardship of the more than 100,000 acres in Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens region, along with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, uses prescribed fires as part of its wildfire prevention strategy. Prescribed fires reduce “fuel” materials on the forest floor: dead leaves and pine needles and dry brush.
The Central Pine Barrens Commission also has a wildfire task force, which develops and implements fire management plans for the core region and develops public education programs.
In 1997, the commission established the New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy to provide “comprehensive training in wildfire and brush fire response for local and regional firefighters and agencies with responsibilities for wildfire prevention and response,” according to the commission’s website.
“There’s a lot more training available now,” said Danowski. The Manorville Fire Department will be having a wildfire training program for its members this month, he said.
A Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services assessing the response to the 2012 wildfire is said to have detailed systemic shortcomings such as incompatible communication frequencies among first responders and failures in coordination, according to a June 2012 Newsday article.
The county report was not released to the public. Its public release would jeopardize public safety, a spokesperson for County Executive Steve Bellone said. It was provided to commanders, fire marshals, fire coordinators as well as to the State DEC, Brookhaven National Lab and the towns of Brookhaven and Riverhead, then- Bellone spokesperson Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.
“One thing we did see is that we had one command post with more than 100 departments,” Baird-Streeter said. “Just parking the trucks was a challenge, so one lesson learned is to also have outer-area staging areas.”
To improve communication between the departments, all units will now be on one radio channel and fall under the command of one chief, Baird-Streeter told RiverheadLOCAL in 2013.
Suffolk’s firefighters did an outstanding job containing and putting out the massive, rapidly spreading fire, Baird-Streeter said, noting that there was no loss or life, one serious injury and minimal property damage.
Fire season in New York — the period of time when environmental conditions tend to place woodlands most at risk for wildfires — begins in mid-March and runs through mid-May. There is a statewide ban on residential brush burning in New York during this time.
A second fire season occurs during the late summer through early autumn (late July to early October), especially during drought years. Wildfires during this period are not as frequent, but have the capacity to become larger and more intense.
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