A Giant Fire Starts in the Pine Barrens

Huge fires are burning up parts of eastern Long Island. The first of them was reported to have started early Monday morning in some acreage of woods and brush in the northwest corner of the Brookhaven National Laboratory near to the Heavy Ion Collider complex. The land is dry. High winds up to 35 miles an hour soon had it spreading west to east.

But that was just the beginning. More fires—set by flying sparks from the Brookhaven Lab fire, began in Manorville and Ridge, and these were much bigger. By Tuesday morning, with the high winds continuing, these fires grew to as much as 35 feet in height and soon burned down some houses and a store, then headed for some more homes. All the volunteer fire departments from a 100-mile radius were rushed to that fire, with a total of more than 300 people on the scene in all. By noon on Tuesday, three firemen had to be taken to the Burn Center in Stony Brook Hospital, all suffering from smoke inhalation or burns, one of whom had second and third degree burns. Entire areas of Brookhaven and the western part of Southampton have been evacuated. People have gone to shelters in Riverhead and Brookhaven. In Riverhead, the evacuated areas are from Grumman Boulevard south to the Peconic River, and from Wading River Road and Schultz Road east to Edwards Avenue. Numerous horse farms are in this area, and many people have been seen walking horses to safety.

Environmentalists say that fires such as this will happen naturally every 20 years in the Pine Barrens as the woods cleans itself. The woods collects debris, leaves and dead brush as the years go by and, periodically, fires start to clear it all out. Nothing can be done to prevent this and, probably nothing should be done.

At this point, it is not clear if this is going to get better or very much worse. The Pine Barrens where all this takes place covers an area about 20 miles square between Riverhead and Wading River and Westhampton Beach and Shirley.

This series of fires reminds everyone here of the Great Sunrise Wildfire of 1995, when winds howled and flames in the Pine Barrens rose as high as 100 feet. Many volunteers stayed up for two days at a time trying to contain it as it marched through the woods from south of Manorville toward Westhampton. It was felt that Westhampton Beach would be safe from this fire because the Sunrise Highway, elevated and nearly 300 feet wide, stood in the fire’s way as a perfect firebreak for its entire length. However, Governor Pataki, who was at the scene at headquarters by the Sunrise Highway to urge on the volunteers, witnessed that night the single most frightening thing he had seen in his life, he later said. He was walking alongside the Highway to review the fire and hold a press conference on a nearby overpass with then County Executive Robert J. Gaffney and some members of the press, when, incredibly, the fire rose up to hundreds of feet and, with this unearthly whining sound, leaped entirely across the six lanes of the Sunrise Highway to ignite pine trees on the south side just a few hundred yards from him.

This new fire on the south side of the highway was brought under control within four hours, but the message was clear. This fire was going to go wherever it wants. It could destroy the whole town, and the westerly winds could blow it east to Hampton Bays and Southampton.

As it turned out, however, that was the only time the fire crossed the Sunrise Highway. The next day, the firemen got a measure of control over the fire and the next day, too late really, several air force planes came and dropped repeated loads of 50,000 gallons of water on the fire to give it the coup de gras.

The bravery of the firemen then, fighting desperate retreating battles with the fire for more than 48 hours without a break, is to this day spoken of as heroism at the highest level. We don’t know the outcome of these fires at this point. We just hope for the best.

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