Gov. Andrew Cuomo is “cautiously optimistic” that Suffolk County firefighters have contained a 1,000-acre brush fire in Ridge and Manorville a day after the flames erupted, but crews were still roaming the pine barrens to extinguish smaller fires.
“The fire is not totally out,” Cuomo told reporters Tuesday afternoon at a press conference with one of three houses gutted by the blaze behind him. He later declared a state of emergency in the county. “It could have been a lot worse…all of the ingredients were there for a real tragedy.”
Suffolk County Executive said, “We have prevented what could have been a significant disaster,” referring to the four-day 1995 wildfires in eastern Suffolk.
Three firefighters were injured when their vehicle was surrounded by flames—one of six brush fire vehicles that were reportedly abandoned in the inferno. One firefighter was admitted to the Stony Brook University Medical Center burn unit while the other two were treated and released.
A Red Flag Warning remains in effect on Long Island and surrounding areas through 8 p.m. Tuesday, meaning low humidity and high winds—prime fire weather, according to the National Weather Service.
Suffolk County police Arson Squad detectives are continuing the investigation into the cause of the fire, the cost of which is too early to tell.
Charred vehicles, blackened trees, police roadblocks and convoys of fire trucks dotted the landscape in the rural East End hamlets at the core of the fire. The smell of smoke lingered in the air for miles around. Many homes and businesses in the area were evacuated.
Long Island Rail Road trains were cancelled and replaced with buses between Ronkonkoma and Greenport for the past two days because the fire was so close to the tracks.
More than 100 fire departments responded after the fire broke out at about 2:30 p.m. Monday near Brookhaven National Lab, which was unaffected by the fire. About 35 fire departments remained on the scene Tuesday afternoon. A state police helicopters made 20 550-gallon water drops on hot spots in the morning.
“What we need is a real drenching rain,” Joe Williams, commissioner of Suffolk’s Office of Emergency Management, said from Saints Peter and Paul Church in Manorville, which became a makeshift command post.
Forecasters predict a 20-percent chance of showers or thunderstorms Tuesday afternoon into the evening. A 30-percent chance of showers was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday.
Officials praised the response of volunteer firefighters who battled the flames, sometimes reaching upward of 30 feet in the air. Many took days off of work to join the fight. Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers worked to keep the firefighters well fed, hydrated and caffeinated.
“You can’t even put a price tag on it,” said Blaise Gemellaro, chief of the West Islip Fire Department. “They’re out there 19 hours and the only thing they get is a cup of coffee.”
He added, “The volunteers never ask for anything. This is what they do, this is what they signed on for.”