Long Island wildfire prompts Cuomo to declare state of emergency

By McClatchy Newspapers Published: 9:52 PM – 04/10/12 last updated: 10:00 PM – 04/10/12

MANORVILLE, N.Y. _ As investigators explore the possibility that the Pine Barrens wildfire was started by someone who was burning brush or leaves, new York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency Tuesday in Suffolk County on Long Island.

“All the ingredients were there for a real tragedy,” Cuomo said minutes after touring the scene from a helicopter over Manorville and Ridge, noting that the coordinated response efforts _ and the efforts of volunteer firefighters _ averted that tragedy.

“This is a situation that could have gotten out of control,” he said. “If you lost control of a fire this large, it could have been very, very, very bad.”

The fire, which burned 1,124 acres, has been largely contained, though concerns remained about flare-ups as the winds have picked up, officials said.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Cuomo said, “until the last ember is out.”

The governor’s state of emergency declaration paves the way for funding, eased statutes and more flexibility in the deployment of state assets to help in restoration efforts, he said.

“After reviewing the damage it is well merited in this case,” he said.

The fire _ the seventh largest in state history _ engulfed three homes and left three firefighters injured, including one who was hospitalized with burns, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

Asked whether the fire may have been accidentally started by someone burning leaves or brush, Suffolk County Fire and Rescue Commissioner Joe Williams said officials had heard the rumors, and the arson squad and state Department of Environmental Conservation investigators were looking into them.

Bellone said, “It’s being investigated. We have no knowledge of that at this time.”

Jerome Hauer, state commissioner of homeland security and emergency services, warned that conditions for additional fires will remain optimal for at least another 10 days.

“People are going to need to be very careful with outside burning of any kind,” said Hauer, whose efforts coordinating state and local resources was praised by Cuomo. “Anything they do outdoors, whether cigarettes or barbecues,” Hauer said, “has the potential of lighting the underbrush.”

Bellone noted during a recent tour of the damage that he saw a new brush fire whipped up by increasing winds and had to be extinguished.

A county fire official said that about 200 firefighters battled the fire Tuesday. there were 20 brush trucks, 10 tankers, and 10 engines employed. thirty five Suffolk County fire departments are involved, and Nassau firefighters have been sent home, he said.

Before addressing the media in a mid-afternoon news conference, Cuomo addressed firefighters near a Manorville barn destroyed by fire.

“You guys made all the difference,” the governor said.

Bellone praised the work of the firefighters, saying those volunteers had “helped save property and lives.”

Those efforts included teams on the ground, as well as a state helicopter making water drops from the sky. Hauer called those drops “very effective” in dousing hot spots, but noted: “There’s so much brush out there that’s prone to burn. We’ve got to be vigilant over the next day or so to ensure we don’t have any flare-ups.”

He said 41 homes remained without power Tuesday, down from thousands of outages.

The blaze has had firefighters working around the clock since Monday, and early Tuesday Bellone praised the work of those volunteers, calling them “an inspiration.”

He noted the efforts of the Manorville and Ridge fire departments, who he said worked “under very difficult and dangerous circumstances.”

The three injured firefighters were taken to Stony Brook University Medical Center, Bellone said. two were released after being treated for smoke inhalation but one was admitted with first and second-degree burns, Bellone said.

Bellone said he met with the burned firefighter who was “in great spirits,” adding: “It’s a real testament to the spirit and heroism of these volunteer firefighters … who are working to protect their neighbors.”

Earlier Monday night, the wildfire, which started as two separate brushfires that combined, raged through at least 500 acres of woods and vegetation, fueled by the bone-dry brush, strong and steady winds and low humidity.

The inferno burned swaths of Manorville, Ridge, Riverhead and several other communities in what was considered a single inferno, Bellone and rescue officials said.

Around midnight Monday, the eastern front of the fire was still burning out of control.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, flanked by police, fire, emergency services officials and Brookhaven National Lab officials and American Red Cross representatives at the Saints Peter and Paul Church parking lot in Manorville, Bellone seemed more assured the tide was turning in the battle than the previous evening when he called the fire “as serious as it gets.”

Ridge Fire Chief Steve Gray said the inferno started as two fires at one point Monday but merged.

Gray said some people who had been evacuated were allowed to go back to their homes to get animals and valuables when it was deemed safe.

Manorville was particularly hard hit by the blaze.

Chief Craig Robinson of the Plainview Fire Department said he saw two or three houses that burned to the ground in Manorville near North Street.

Johnny Moretti, 26, was in shock Monday night as he stood outside the Manorville home where he’d lived all his life. Flames had gutted the one-story house on Oakwood Drive, taking out the basement, kitchen, garage and most of the family’s belongings. A half-charred happy Easter sign hung in a front window.

“I’m at a loss,” Moretti said, watching the remainders of a flame flicker in a tree next to the destroyed home. “I watched the fire come all the way up and there was nothing I could do.”

Diane Juergens, a Ridge resident, said she encountered the blaze as she returned home from attending classes around 3 p.m.

“It looked like a volcano exploding,” said Juergens, whose husband, Chris, had been kept from the home by one of several roadblocks around the neighborhood. “The plume of smoke in the air was just amazing.”

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Long Island wildfire prompts Cuomo to declare state of emergency

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