George Pataki Recalls Pine Barrens Fire Response

George Pataki
George Pataki
Marc Nozell

It is unquestionable to say that former Gov. George Pataki, the 53rd governor of the State of New York, presided over some of the Empire State’s most unprecedented and transformative moments in recent memory.

Pataki’s leadership in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, is lauded as he catalyzed the response, recovery, and ultimately, the rebuild of New York City. However, those who live on the East End had an earlier experience with Pataki that was life-changing its own right — the 1995 Pine Barren fire — within his first year in office.

For those who may be unfamiliar, in August 1995, unseasonably dry weather, coupled with a warm breeze led to a fire sparking in the massive, 100,000-acre pine forest preserve. What would ensue would be a four-day inferno, which would come within three miles of destroying lives, livelihoods, and homes in Westhampton and elsewhere.

Upon learning of the fire, Pataki immediately declared a state of emergency and took action in Suffolk County. Over 2,000 firefighters from every department on Long Island converged on the region as well as state and federal emergency personnel responded at the request of the governor. Pataki set up a command center, where he assumed the role of the leader of the response, helping to organize the round-the-clock battle against the blaze.

“In these barrens, there were pine needles that had been accumulating for decades,” Pataki recalls. “It took seconds for the fires to spread from one area to the next.”

“I remember myself and a group of firefighters, as well as about 60 news cameras, were standing on the north side of Sunrise Highway, thinking that the flames would be unable to pass over the major thoroughfare,” he continues. “Within moments we realized that we were wrong, and that made it clear to me just how quickly this fire was moving.”

“However, of all the things I remember from that day was the incredible courage of the volunteer firefighters,” he adds. “They faced down a fire 100 feet high and fought it although it was roaring towards them. Everyone who played a part in this operation did a phenomenal job and, they are the reason it was not far worse.”

While hundreds were evacuated in the incident and 25 firefighters were injured, only a dozen homes were destroyed, thanks to the overwhelming response of emergency services and C130 planes secured from federal government by Pataki.

“One of the things that I realized from this moment was the importance that a leader has in such uncertain circulations,” he says. “It was my job to lead, and coordinate who-was-doing-what. I was on the phone with the federal government and other officials every few moments, helping to keep people safe in the most effective way possible.”

And, while this is a moment that none of us will ever forget on Long Island and the East End, Pataki said that his legacy, sustains in eastern Suffolk in other ways, too.

George Pataki’s East End Legacy

“We did a lot on the East End,” he says. “We created parks and preserved public spaces like Hither Hills and Camp Hero. We preserved thousands of acres of open space on the east end and implemented a very successful agricultural preservation program.

“Much of this still exists to this day and contributes to the ability of the Hamptons and the East End to maintain the semi-rural nature that makes the east end as attractive as it is,” Pataki continues.

While Pataki has had a tremendous impact on the east end, it could also be said that the east end has had an equally impactful role in Pataki’s life. He recalls his early professional years, when he and a few work friends rented a home in East Quogue for the summer.

“When I first started working at a law firm in New York City, a bunch of friends of mine said they were going to rent a house in the Hamptons,” Pataki recalls. “Knowing little east of Setauket at the time — where my mother was raised and we vacationed as a child — I agreed. So many of us split the rent, that some of us would sleep on the floor, but regardless, we had a great summer.”

“Every day we would go to Tiana Beach,” he says. “We would go around 10 and swim body surf, or play touch football until four-or-so when we would go play basketball at Castaways.”

But the most memorable moment would come on a warm day when the South Shore waves were massive thanks to the help of a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas.

“There was a red flag, but still a couple of my buddies and I swam out to the sand bar,” he says. “We wanted to ride these massive swells that were bring driven up the coast by the hurricane. With us guys, there was one, crazy woman who was riding the waves with us.”

“And, that’s when I met her,” he says of his wife of 49 years, Libby. They now have four children, 10 grandchildren, and three dogs.

“We still go out there every summer, with so many friends and great memories. One of the great things about politics is that you meet great people who you become very close with,” Pataki says. “We often visit our close friend, Charlie Gargano who lives in Bridgehampton.”

Gargano led the Port Authority and oversaw the rebuild of Manhattan in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

“We sill go out to the Quogue East Pub, where we would hang out all those years ago, have a few beers, and reminisce about the great times that we had,” he says. “We even do our best to make it back for the East Hampton Library Book Sale — a tremendous event that we try to make every year.”

It could be said that memories made on the East End last a lifetime, and by this measure, Pataki has certainly had a life well lived.

Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.

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