Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, doesn’t expect Monday's raging fires to be extinguished any time soon.
“Any notion that this fire can be brought under control in the near future is illusory," he said. "The fire of '95 lasted a few days.”
The wildfires of 1995 encompassed 7,000 acres, Amper said; Monday’s numerous fires have so far covered 1,500 acres.
Looking back at the fire that ravaged the Pine Barrens in 1995, Amper reminded that although there were dramatic images, such as the flames crossing over Sunrise Highway, in the end, only 400 residents were evacuated and “miraculously,” there were no fatalities — a testament to emergency responders, since there are roughly 59,000 residents in the Pine Barrens region and 23,000 homes, he said.
The 1995 fire, he said, burned right in the backyard of homes located near Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach.
Monday’s fire, Amper said, is raging in the core preservation area of the Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens, as an ecosystem, needs to burn to regenerate. “We are less worried about the Pine Barren than the people that live in them, their property and their homes — and to keep firefighters out of harm’s way," Amper said.
The 1995 fires, the "granddaddy" of such events, Amper said, resulted in a major educational effort, teaching firefighters how to effectively fight brush and wildfires, which are very different than a kitchen or house fire. “It’s much hotter, and more unpredictable,” Amper said. In 1995, he said, emergency responders were unprepared for events of such magnitude.
Winds changed direction in 1995, Amper said, destroying firetrucks. “The men and women who fought that fire were veteran firefighters who had never seen anything like that before or since," Amper said. "Nothing can be compared to Mother Nature’s fury.”
Cutbacks in funding to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have resulted in fewer prescribed fires, and a buildup of leaf litter that has contributed to the ferocity of the current wildfires, Amper said.
In addition, he added, weather conditions, including a warm winter, exacerbated conditions. Humans, Amper said, cause 90 percent of brush fires.