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12/30/12 8:00am
12/30/2012 8:00 AM

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Governor Andrew Cuomo shakes hands with a Ridge firefighter in Calverton April 10.

The largest Long Island wildfire in over a decade burned more than 1,000 acres of forest and property from Ridge to Calverton — with other, smaller fires breaking out in Flanders, Yaphank and elsewhere — during a prolonged dry spell in April.

The larger “Wildfire of 2012” damaged dozens of structures and forced evacuations in neighborhoods along Wading River Manor Road in Manorville. At its peak, a plume of smoke could be seen from much of Suffolk County and Connecticut.

Manorville firefighter Andrew Preli said the fire was like nothing he’s ever seen in his three years of volunteer service.

“I’ve been on a bunch of brush fires,” he said. “Nothing this crazy, nothing this big. It sounded like a train coming through.

“Everywhere I looked something was on fire.”

Firefighters from more than 100 departments across Suffolk and Nassau counties spent over two days bringing the flames under control. One Manorville volunteer, William Hille, 35, suffered severe burns to his face after he and two colleagues had to abandon a brush truck that caught fire in the woods.

The truck was destroyed.

All responders were later honored with a “firefighter appreciation festival” at the Brookhaven Amphitheater, which featured free concerts for volunteers and their families.

Investigators later determined the fire was intentionally set on undeveloped property at the Brookhaven National Laboratory site.

Suffolk County police are offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest.

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04/20/12 4:11pm
04/20/2012 4:11 PM

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | A firefighter drags a hose during this month's wild fire in Riverhead Town.

Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said Wednesday that he believes the county should drill fire suppression wells in the Pine Barrens to help firefighters battle brush fires. But some environmentalists said that installing more hydrants should not be the first step taken to help reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Mr. Romaine said he will introduce a resolution in the county Legislature this Tuesday instructing the Department of Health Services’ well drilling unit to install fire wells capable of providing 400 gallons of water per minute on county parkland within the Pine Barrens.

He said local firefighters had poor access to water supplies during the recent wildfires in the area. The wells would be a fast way to provide more support for firefighters’ efforts “without spending millions on new, unnecessary, public water mains,” he said.

With the right county support, he added, the well drilling unit could also install smaller wells quickly. The county would also be able to seek agreements with local towns and property owners to install additional wells on non-county land.

“Our volunteers, led by Elio Zapparrata and the Manorville Fire Department, did a tremendous job fighting these fires,” Mr. Romaine said. “However, the lack of water in the Pine Barrens continues to be a major concern. With little development and even fewer water mains, water is a scarce resource.”

But environmental activists and officials say that although the proposed wells would probably not be detrimental to the Pine Barren ecosystem, other steps, like scheduled controlled burns, would be more effective in preventing brush fires from getting out of control.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the DEC doesn’t think having additional wells will affect the area’s water supply and said the state uses “prescribed fires” on state lands to help reduce the amount of fuel for wildfires. The controlled burns, in addition to other steps such as fire breaks and timber and firewood harvesting, have proven effective in reducing the risk of brush fires.

Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper agreed, saying wells alone would not do enough to reduce the risk of large fires and would only assist in putting them out once they’ve begun.

“There’s no problem taking water from the Pine Barrens,” he added, “The question is how would this work with other efforts to manage fire [there].”

Mr. Amper said that, done correctly, controlled burns would actually benefit the ecosystem.

“The Pine Barrens have been burning for more than 10,000 years,” he said. “It is a fire-dependent ecosystem. They should burn an average of once every 15 years. The areas that were involved in the last two fires hadn’t burned in 60.”

Mr. Amper said the county should take “proactive” steps to reduce wildfires by burning roughly 1,000 acres over the course of the year in smaller fires to prevent massive fires from swelling out of control.

“You have to work with Mother Nature or she’s going to fight with you and eventually she’s going to win,” he said.

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04/13/12 10:57am
04/13/2012 10:57 AM

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Stanley Krupski watches as firefighters douse the remains of his property with water Tuesday morning.

George Moretti couldn’t understand it.

A few yards from his burned Manorville home, one of his vegetable gardens sat untouched. The roof of his gazebo in the backyard had collapsed onto the table, burned to a black crisp, but the plastic chairs inside were intact.

Plywood boards covered his house where the raging wildfire had leapt through an open window into his basement and torched the building’s supports; next door, his neighbor’s yard was barely singed.

“How does that work?” he asked. “How does that work?”

Mr. Moretti’s home was one of several properties damaged in the massive wildfires that swept from Ridge to Calverton Monday afternoon, claiming over 1,000 acres of forest. By Tuesday afternoon, the winds that had pushed the blaze toward Mr. Morretti’s house on Oakwood Drive had died down and firefighters were able to contain most of the fires.

That gave Mr. Moretti, his wife, Kathleen, and his son John a chance to return to their home of 25 years and begin to recover.

Before they evacuated the area, the Morettis said they were able to grab their laptop computers, photo albums and three pets. But some of their prized possessions, like Mr. Moretti’s vintage 1985 454 Kawasaki Limited motorcycle, were damaged beyond repair.

Friends and neighbors surrounded the couple Tuesday morning, offering their undamaged homes as a place to stay while insurance agents and cleaning crews cleared the home. The Morettis waited to see what else could be saved.

“We thought that was going to be a good fire break,” Mr. Moretti said, pointing to the field behind his home. But the fire had jumped the field, destroyed a nearby horse barn, crept over the property’s fence and ruined the garage before wrecking the house.

“If that barn hadn’t caught fire, we would’ve been all right. But nothing you can do about that,” he said.

As the wind shifted, residents could smell charred wood from the distant wildfires and simmering remains still burning miles away.

Down the road on Oakwood Drive, Dan and Cheryl Smith examined their 1994 Toyota Corolla, which destroyed by the fire. The sheds behind their house were gone as well, with only a ruined door as a clue to what once stood there.

“I expected to see supports or the roof [remain behind],” Ms. Smith said. “Nothing. Nothing. It just melted into thin air.”

While they lost the car (Ms. Smith said the couple was going to get rid of it anyway) and the two sheds filled with steel-working tools, their home sustained only smoke damage, she said.

The blaze had taken a sharp right turn just before it reached their house.

“The firemen said we should by all rights have lost the house,” Ms. Smith said.

About half a mile away, on Wading River Manor Road, Stanley and Dennis Krupski of Calverton sat on ceramic pots outside their property Tuesday morning, stunned.

Their repair shop, where they had worked on their No. 12 late-model race car to compete at Riverhead Raceway, was burned to the ground. Only a gray wall was left, leaning precariously against some debris. The property had been in their family for more than 90 years.

Stanley Krupski took long drags on a cigarette as he walked around the property with his cane and surveyed the damage. The storage shed where they kept their car parts was burned down to its foundation. A nearby horse trailer used for storage was still smoldering and a vintage bus had melted nearly in two.

He nodded his head at a burned-out car where fire crews had tied off yellow warning tape.

“It was a Jeep,” Mr. Krupski said softly. He paused, then sighed. “Was.”

He threw the cigarette onto the gray, soot-covered dirt, stomping it under his shoe.

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04/12/12 1:45pm
04/12/2012 1:45 PM

Suffolk County and all the towns in Suffolk announced plans to host a “firefighter appreciation festival” to honor all the volunteers who helped extinguish this week’s wildfires in Ridge and Manorville.

The event will be held Saturday, May 19.

Watch the video from Thursday’s announcement above.

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a wildfire media briefing in Manorville Tuesday morning.

04/12/12 8:30am

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Irish, with Catrina Tedesco, who walked the horse from Annie's Acres stables in Manorville to EPCAL.

“I went in there and it was chaos,” said “Big John” Savastano of Manorville, describing the scene at the Annie’s Acres horse stable on Wading River Manor Road as Monday’s wildfires approached. “There were 30 to 40 fire trucks that went up the road when we were there.”

The fire was heading their way.

With the flames fast approaching, horse owners at the many Manorville area stables were in a panic, using social media and other methods to call for help in moving horses to safety.

But in the end, the members of the “horse community,” as they call themselves, pulled together to make sure all the horses were safe.

“The horse community was wonderful,” said Carolyn Jolly, co-owner of Hidden Pond Stables on North Street in Manorville. “Everybody stepped up.”

Some horses were walked to safety, while others were loaded onto trailers and taken elsewhere temporarily, Ms. Jolly said.

“At one time, there must have been 200 horses walking down the street with their bridles,” said Joe Williams, county commissioner of Fire Rescue and Emergency Services. Initially, police were not letting horse trailers in because the roads were closed to traffic due to the fire, Ms. Jolly said, but the authorities eventually relented.

Hidden Pond Stables evacuated 40 of its 83 horses, Ms. Jolly said. By the time those animals were moved, the fire was under better control and, with danger no longer imminent, the rest of the horses were allowed to remain.

Ms. Jolly said word got out via email and Facebook that help was needed and, eventually, there were about 50 volunteers, including owners of horse transport companies donating their time and trailers.

She said the authorities didn’t supply any trailers or suggest ways to get the horses out.

“The horse community did it [themselves],” she said, though no stables were damaged in the fires.

Lynne Weissbard, owner of Sundance Stables on North Street, said she didn’t evacuate her horses. Instead, she rounded them up in the center of the property while the fire department wet down the perimeter. And it worked.

“If the fire came in from the side of the property, we would have had to evacuate, but the fire blasted past us in about five minutes,” Ms. Weissbard said.

With her horses safe, she sent all the people who came to her stable to help over to Annie’s Acres instead.

“The fire had moved past here, and we were OK, so I really wanted them to help where they were most needed,” said Ms. Weissbard, who spent 18 years with the Manorville Fire Department herself.

The volunteers included people who kept their horses at Sundance Stables, as well as others in the horse profession, she said.

“We all kept in touch with one another and bonded together,” she said. “It’s a small group of people with a passion for horses. I had probably 50 to 60 people volunteering here, from different professions. They were terrific.”

She said everything was under control and organized and everyone involved made sure that horses and buildings were not exposed to fire.

“Because we did that, we’re not out searching for our animals today,” Ms. Weissbard said. “They’re here.”

Catrina Tedesco of Manorville took her horse, Irish, from Annie’s Acres and walked him about two miles to Grumman Boulevard to get him out of harm’s way.

She originally started walking him along Old River Road, but the horse was getting spooked by passing cars, so she walked him through the Swan Lake golf course to Grumman Boulevard, marching the horse past an array of fire trucks and emergency vehicles.

Annie’s Acres, which boards about 60 horses, was spared by the fire, but the house directly across the street from the stable was destroyed.

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04/10/12 8:50pm

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Governor Andrew Cuomo shakes hands with a Ridge firefighter in Calverton Tuesday afternoon.

The Brookhaven brushfire that claimed more than 1,000 acres and nine properties over the past 24-plus hours has been extinguished, Manorville firefighters confirmed Tuesday night.

Local fire departments were called off the scene late Tuesday, though officials did not confirm when the fire was put out. Volunteers had spent the day containing the blaze and battling smaller flare ups in the area.

The evacuation order for Manorville residents south of Route 25, east of Wading River Manor Road and west of Edwards Avenue was lifted about 6:30 p.m. and the Long Island Power Authority restored power to the area, officials said.

Riverhead police have also “increased patrols in that area” to look out for further flare ups, said Riverhead Lt. David Lessard.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone expressed optimism that the fire would be extinguished at a media briefing in Calverton Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Bellone said earlier Tuesday that three homes and one commercial structure were destroyed in the fire, which began at Brookhaven National Laboratory Monday afternoon and spread southeast with several small fires popping up along the trail. About 1,000 acres burned, he said.

The Town of Riverhead announced Tuesday it would expedite any permits needed for homeowners who suffered damage in the fire. Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the town’s Building Department has already begun to visit victims’ homes.

“[If anybody submits a permit from the area] we’ll put it to the top of the pile,” Mr. Walter said. He also said the town will look into other forms of disaster relief, including potentially waiving permit fees.

Most of the structures damaged in the fire were in Riverhead Town, Mr. Walter said.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | A state helicopter transports water and drops it on hot spots Tuesday morning.

Rescue workers began dropping buckets of water from helicopters Tuesday morning to prevent the fire from spreading.

By Tuesday morning three fires remained, including two west of Shultz Road and one on Mill Road in Manorville, officials said. Mr Bellone said Tuesday afternoon that while those fires had been put out, firefighters continued to battle small flare ups.

Mr. Cuomo said that if not for the efforts of local volunteer firefighters “it could have been worse.”

The fire started on an undeveloped part of Brookhaven National Laboratory, in the lab’s northeast corner, according to Michael Bebon, deputy director for operations. He said no structures were damaged at the Lab and no Lab operations were interrupted.

Jerome Hauer, state Commissioner of Homeland Security, commended the quick response of thousands of volunteers Monday in attacking the fire.

“It was certainly a significant brush fire,” he said. “It’s because of their quick action that it has not grown further.”

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at Tuesday's press conference in Manorville.

Mr. Bellone commended Manorville fire chief Elio Zapparata, who was in a dentist’s chair when he got word of the fire and told the dentist to just pull the tooth out so he could go.

The Manorville Fire Department lost one truck in the fire, and a firefighter who was on that truck suffered burns and was taken to the Stony Brook University Medical Center.

Mr. Bellone said Tuesday morning that the firefighter, William Hille, 35, was “doing well and is in good spirits.”

A hospital spokesperson said Mr. Hille was likely going to be discharged Tuesday night.

Manorville firefighter Andrew Preli said the fire was like nothing he’s ever seen in his three years of volunteer service.

“I’ve been on a bunch of brush fires,” he said. “Nothing this crazy, nothing this big.

“It sounded like a train coming through. Everywhere I looked something was on fire.”

About 35 fire departments were still fighting the fire Tuesday afternoon, and more than 100 were on scene Monday, Mr. Bellone said.

The American Red Cross also was at the scene, operating an emergency shelter at the Riverhead Town senior citizen center in Aquebogue, according to John Miller, their Suffolk County director. He said 14 people used the shelter Monday and about four remained there Tuesday.

American Red Cross volunteers also brought “thousands of water bottles” and meals to fire fighters, he said.

“Most of all, I want to thank our volunteer fire fighters, who have been out here non-stop, fighting this fire since yesterday afternoon, and they are still out there working hard,” Mr. Bellone said Tuesday morning. “They have been inspirational in what they have done.”

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the wildfires of 1995 and post 9-11 about how we communicate and coordinate,” he added. “And this effort here has been a perfect example of the importance of that coordination and effectiveness of the lessons learned.”

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04/10/12 9:16am

We will be adding photos of damages from the Suffolk County wildfire throughout the day. Please feel free to send us your photos as well:

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Cheryl Smith surveys the damage done to her 1994 Toyota corrola. Her house was undamaged in the fire, which swerved off her property a few yards from her home. "We're surviving," she said.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A garage that burned on Oakwood in Manorville.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A burned boat in a backyard on Oakwood in Manorville.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Another boat stored away for the season that caught fire in Manorville.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A fence that burned between two properties in Manorville.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Helicopters still circling overhead in Manorville. Generators buzzing at nearby houses. The '95 fire didn't hit the Oakwood area, residents say.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | This was the repair shop on Wading River Road used by the Krupski racing team. They race the late model No. 12 at Riverhead.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Firefighters douse horse trailer that held supplies in Manrorville.