Many North Fork firefighters were on call, far from home

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04/12/2012 10:49 AM |

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Friefighters from 109 deaprtments responded to this week's wildfires in Manorville and Ridge.

He wasn’t on the front line battling the flames, but that doesn’t mean Bob Fisher, the Cutchogue Fire Department’s fire police coordinator, didn’t put in a long day.

Throughout the day Monday he was stationed at the county’s Fire Rescue and Emergency Services dispatch center in Yaphank and then moved to the Wading River Manor Road area in Manorville to lend a hand with fire police efforts.

He made it home by 10:30 p.m., but was called in to return at 11.

“I had just crawled into bed when the signal went off,” said Mr. Fisher, a firefighter for 40 years.

After that, he stayed on duty until about 8 Tuesday morning.

“It happens,” he said. “Thank heaven not often.”

Mr. Fisher’s experience was shared by dozens of local firefighters summoned to battle the biggest blaze since the 1995 Sunrise wildfires scorched about 6,500 acres in the Pine Barrens north of Westhampton. Each of Suffolk County’s 104 fire departments got the call then, and each was pressed into duty to fight the Ridge-Manorville wildfires that has burned anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 pine barrens acres not far from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton.

The Mattituck Fire Department sent a dozen volunteers and an 8,500-gallon water tanker to the front lines, serving as a mobile filling station for the brush trucks dousing the flames right at the fire line, said Chief Jason Haas.

Initially stationed in the woods along the path of the power lines near BNL and then moved to Manorville, the chief didn’t see the flames, “but there was an awful lot of smoke,” he said.

Mattituck’s volunteers worked the blaze until about 10 p.m. Monday and, like other departments, were recalled at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“A couple of hours’ sleep and right back at it,” the chief said.

Local fire chiefs describe battling a fire in the woods as risky but largely straightforward. The apparatus most often used are a brush truck, a pumper designed specifically for forested terrain and a tanker to keep the water flowing.

Brush trucks often work in teams, said Tom Martin, a former Cutchogue FD chief and now one of four deputy county fire coordinators in Southold Town, In consuming available fuel as they progress, brush fires by their nature move along a long, narrow front. After a group of brush truck crews empty their tanks on the flames they circle back to refill and other crews take their place.

The county pulled the brush trucks off the line at about 1 a.m. Tuesday, said Mr. Martin.

“It was just too dangerous to do it in the dark,” he said.

At 11 p.m. Monday night Bud Griffiths of the Orient Fire Department and other department members were assigned to North Street in Manorville, relieving a crew that had been on station since the afternoon. Orient provided a 3,000-gallon tanker/pumper, a brush truck and two support vehicles.

Department members had a few harrowing moments away from the flames. Called to help search for a brush truck that got stuck in the pitch-black woods, the Orient brush truck had only its own lights and the light from a Suffolk County police helicopter overhead pointing the way.

Their area, located at the headwaters of the Peconic River, was too marshy to employ the brush trucks. Still, they weren’t far from the fire line.

“We could see the flames,” Mr. Griffiths said, “The ash was falling like snow. It was unbelievable. It was coming down in torrents.”
Fighting fires is a Griffiths family tradition. Joining Bud, who also serves as a commissioner, was son Duffy Griffiths, chief of the Jamesport Fire Department.

But this did not present an opportunity for father-son quality time.

The two did meet at the firefighters’ staging area off exit 69 of the LIE, “But I got to see him for about a minute,” Bud Griffiths said.

The elder Mr. Griffiths is one of many firefighters who praised the county for organizing the many volunteers far more effectively than was the case during 1995 wildfires.

“They moved a lot faster this time,” he said. “Once Ridge and Manorville knew what they were dealing with, they didn’t waste any time calling in everybody.”

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