Brush fire drills conducted in Hampton Bays

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Members of the Hampton Bays Fire Department were able to take their two brush fire trucks, vehicles that can navigate unpaved surfaces and transport firefighters through forests, on a much needed test drive last month.

For two days, Thursday, May 8 and Saturday, May 10, the planning firm behind the hamlet’s new Super Stop & Shop, the Richmond Company, granted the fire department permission to conduct brush fire drills at the future site of the new supermarket. In March, the Southampton Town Planning Board gave the company permission to build a new 50,000-square-foot store on the north side of Montauk Highway, just west of the intersection with Route 24. The store is set to open next spring.

During the drills, firefighters were allowed to take their off-road trucks through the wooded property, which simulates the terrain that they must be able to navigate during an actual brush fire. Company officials used tags to mark the trees that could be taken down during the exercise.

Hampton Bays Fire Department Commissioner Gerard Buckley said he and others in the department jumped at the opportunity to practice their firefighting techniques.

“This is something that can only be learned through on-the-job training” said Mr. Buckley, explaining that off-road drills pose a different set of obstacles. “Brush fire drills are a way to utilize property before demolition,” he added.

The special drills are designed to educate firefighters on how to navigate through densely wooded areas when battling blazes. Firefighters rely on the slow, all-wheel-drive vehicles to find a route through the woods.

The brush trucks are different from regular fire trucks in that they are modified with a heavy steel cage and armor. Brush trucks weigh about five tons and are intended to be strong enough to knock anything, especially trees, out of their way.

The chance to conduct these drills does not happen too often, according to Mr. Buckley. He explained that the last time firefighters held such a drill was three years ago, before the department’s substation was built on Ponquogue Avenue.

Brush truck drills are not routinely performed because of the damage they do to land. The trucks are designed to drive over plants and knock down small trees in order to provide a direct route to a brush fire. Firefighters did not ignite any controlled burns as part of their drills, according to officials.

After the Sunrise Wildfires of 1995, the Central Pine Barrens Commission established the Pine Barrens Wildfire Task Force. This team is dedicated to education, prevention and training to prevent brush fires.

John Urevich, the chairman of the task force and the senior firehouse attendant with the Hampton Bays Fire Department, said it is important for all fire departments to take advantage of such an opportunity as afforded Hampton Bays by the Richmond Company.

“Driving up and down dirt trails is one thing, but off-road driving is very important,” Mr. Urevich said. “Obviously, there is permanent damage to the woods, so it can’t happen often. More fire departments should take these opportunities to conduct these drills in a completely controlled environment. It’s a great idea.”

Mr. Buckley emphasized the importance of performing the drills in a controlled environment because of the intimidating nature of the brush trucks. “Imagine having to drive these trucks for the first time,” he said. “Now imagine if the area was smokey, hot, and you had adrenaline pumping through your body.”

The fire department initially met some resistance from Southampton Town over concerns about potential damage to the property caused by the drills. Firefighters were ultimately allowed to use the property when it was understood that they would not damage any trees that were not already tagged to be taken down.

Based on early returns, the exercises were a success.

“We’ve added about 20 to 25 firefighters to the department since the fires of 1995.” Mr. Buckley said. “Eleven firemen who had never handled a brush truck before were able to get hands-on training. These drills allow us to have more qualified drivers to be ready in the worst case scenario of a brush fire.”

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