Court Fleming picked up his wife at the Ronkonkoma train station after work Monday and headed home to Manorville, not knowing what to expect when they got there.
They never made it past the Manorville Post Office.
Mr. Fleming and Thelma Pacson were the first of the evacuees to seek shelter Monday night at the Riverhead Senior Center in Aquebogue as a massive wildfire raged in the woodlands of eastern Suffolk County.
Mr. Fleming and Ms. Pacson said they learned about the fire about 3 p.m. — roughly a half hour after it started on the Brookhaven National Lab property in Ridge — from their two daughters currently home from college.
The daughters noticed a large plume of smoke in the air as they were headed to an area gym for a workout, the couple said. Then the daughters turned around, returned home and grabbed the family’s two dogs.
Mr. Fleming said both roads leading to his house — Mill Road and Line Road — were eventually closed.
“I never thought this could happen,” he said. “We couldn’t go down the street. There were fire trucks going in and out. All around us, apparently, was engulfed in smoke and flames.”
Mr. Fleming, 58, a Long Island facilities manager, and Ms. Pacson, 55, who works as an accounts payable manager in Manhattan, first met up with their daughters and pets at the post office, located less than a mile from their home on Wading River Manor Road. Once they found out they wouldn’t be allowed to return to their home, the family, including their two dogs, sought shelter and found it in Aquebogue, where the American Red Cross was on the scene.
“It was a little like camping,” Mr. Fleming said Tuesday afternoon of his overnight stay. “The Red Cross is an outstanding organization. It was very comfortable and very pleasant staying here.”
Red Cross shelter manager Scott Wheaton said Tuesday a total of six people had used the shelter since the fire broke out, with two people only staying for a short time after making arrangements with friends, he said.
Riverhead Town announced about 6:30 p.m. Monday, some four hours after the largest fire started at the lab, that people should evacuate homes in the area of Wading River-Manor Road and Schultz Road east to Edwards Avenue, as well as those living anywhere between the Peconic River north to Grumman Boulevard.
County officials could not say Tuesday exactly how many people were evacuated in all.
As for Mr. Fleming and his family, they were allowed to return home Tuesday afternoon. At about 1:30 p.m., a Riverhead police officer called Mr. Fleming’s cell to say it was safe for the family to return, though the power might remain out for precautionary reasons.
“Super,” said a smiling Mr. Fleming upon learning of the news.