Long Island Wildfires: 3 Times the Pine Barrens have Burned

During the past 20 years, Long Island’s largest wildfires have charred hundreds of acres of the East End’s pine barrens.

The ecosystem, 50,000 acres of publicly protected land, needs fire to enrich its soil, to let sunlight penetrate more deeply into the woods. Some species need the flames to open seed pods and remove competition. But when nothing burns, the pitch pine, the scrub oak, the wintergreen and other vegetation, can all serve as fuel for sweeping wildfires.

As the largest fire in California’s history rages on, here’s a look at some of the wildfires that have swept through Long Island.  

April 1989:
Over about a week, a series of brush fires set sections of the pine barrens ablaze.

One fire burned through at least 500 acres of Manorville pine barrens, forcing the evacuation of more than 20 homes. Firefighters from 39 departments battled the blaze for nearly nine hours. 

Another in the Riverhead pine barrens prompted police to close roads from the Long Island Expressway to the county jail and evacuate about 45 homes. Other brush fires broke out in Selden, Manorville and Mastic Beach that same day.

In the end, the Manorville fire was the most significant, burning approximately 6 square miles of undeveloped woodland. It was contained before it destroyed any of the homes to the east and south of the area. Three firefighters were hospitalized. 

The fires stoked an ongoing debate at the time about whether the pine barrens should be developed. The same area of the Manorville pine barrens was scorched by a brush fire in May 1984. 

Investigators said at the time they believed some of the fires had been intentionally set. 

August 1995:
It was the largest fire the state had seen in nearly 90 years and it took four days to contain. The Sunrise Fire scorched 4,500 acres of pine barrens, according to a Newsday article published for the 20th anniversary of the fire. It damaged about a dozen homes before it was put out by firefighters from across the state.

It began just as firefighters had knocked down another pine barrens fire in Rocky Point that consumed 2,500 acres. 

The Sunrise Fire was first spotted on Aug. 24 as three thin columns of smoke in the woods near Suffolk County Community College’s Riverhead campus. The flames quickly jumped across Sunrise Highway, spurred on by unseasonable winds, to reach the pine barrens. Investigators never determined its cause.

The inferno forced the evacuation of about 400 residents and injured 25 firefighters.

“We’ve always heard about national disasters somewhere else,” said Bill Rash, who was forced to leave his home, at the time. “Now we’re in one.”

About 2,000 firefighters from every fire district on Long Island, and from New York City, 10 states and federal agencies were deployed to the area to beat back the flames which spread as far east as Westhampton. 

“It’s the red devil,” said Springs firefighter Joe Fisher. “It clears the tops of the trees and comes down and licks your eyebrows.” 

April 2012:

The blaze started as two separate brush fires, which joined and devastated more than 1,100 acres of pine barrens in Manorville and Ridge.

The flames began on the afternoon of April 9, fueled by low humidity, drought-like conditions and high winds, and spread rapidly, prompting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to declare Suffolk County a disaster area.

“It looked like a war zone,” one volunteer firefighter said at the time. “Everything was burned out — all gray and black.”

Residents near the secluded neighborhoods by the pine barrens evacuated, carrying with them heirlooms, photos and whatever else they could grab. 

Nearly 100 fire departments helped knock down the wildfire, which became the seventh largest in state history since 1975, but not before three homes were destroyed and three firefighters were injured. 

The effort to put out the fire later came under criticism. A report on the response found some units ignored procedures, hindered access to key areas for other crews and were slowed by incompatible radio frequencies.

One section of the report described how many units bypassed the command center and instead followed roads to where smoke was visible. An official said that in some instances, the report reads “fire departments were ‘chasing fire,’ not assignments.”

By Rachel Uda, Newsday

Check out the original publication of this article here