State, local agencies team up to investigate brush fires

State and local agencies are teaming up to investigate the causes of five brush fires since mid-April that scorched more than 100 acres of protected wooded lands in Brookhaven and Riverhead towns.

The fires, the first of which broke out on April 16 in an unoccupied 96-acre section of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s 5,265-acre campus in Upton, also tore through state and Suffolk County parkland in Ridge and Manorville. 

A total of 167 acres were burned, including parts of the state-protected Long Island Pine Barrens, which covers more than 100,000 acres in Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven towns.

The number of fires was higher than usual, possibly because more people were home because of the coronavirus pandemic, instead of at work or in school, said forest ranger Capt. Tim Byrnes of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Fires can be accidentally caused by barbecues, cigarettes or sparks from automobile ignitions.

“This particular year, it’s more than we usually have in such a short period of time,” Byrnes said. “In general, it’s more people being out. That’s something contributing to it.”

Byrnes said swirling winds and “heads” — places where fire is most active — made the blaze in Brookhaven lab’s heavily wooded northeast section difficult to contain. One firefighter was injured, he said.

“First of all, there was lot of smoke,” he said. “It would appear it was going in different directions with a lot of heads.”

After the last of the fires on May 14, the DEC said it would work with Suffolk and Brookhaven lab fire officials, and Brookhaven and Riverhead town fire marshals, to “deploy new technologies” to investigate the fires’ causes.

Byrnes said the DEC has received some tips but has not confirmed the causes of any of the fires. The DEC asked people who have information about the fires to call a state tip line, 518-408-5858, or the Suffolk, Brookhaven or Riverhead fire marshals offices.

Forest fires are not unusual in the spring, when dry weather and low humidity combined with strong winds can turn small sparks into destructive conflagrations.

“The time frame from about mid-March into May is the prime time when brush fires occur, because it’s before our vegetation has leafed out and greened up,” said John W. Pavacic, executive director of the state pine barrens commission. “We just know that this time of year is when fires are more typical.” 

Campfires are banned on state-owned lands and residential brush burning is barred from March 16 to May 14 to reduce the likelihood of fires, Byrnes said. 

Ridge Fire Chief Lou Kaiser said about 70 firefighters from 11 departments took roughly five hours to bring the May 12 fire in Brookhaven State Park under control. No firefighters were hurt, he said.

Kaiser said members of his department use brush trucks — all-terrain vehicles with high-pressure pumps — to fight forest fires while trying to navigate thick vegetation and falling trees.

“It‘s different in the aspect that you’re outside and in a moving vehicle,” he said. “There’s a lot more to be aware of.”

By Carl MacGowan, Newsday

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