A small group of residents formed the Flanders Fire Department 65 years ago to prevent the kind of tragedy that no community should bear.In 1947, a fire broke out in a Bay Avenue home, killing a mother and son before the Riverhead or Hampton Bays fire departments could respond and extinguish the flames. Despite a lack of resources, the 12 charter members vowed to be there for their community the next time such an event occurred.
Today, the 50-member fire department carries on that legacy, dedicating endless hours to protecting the hamlet’s residents, despite the regular challenges it faces. A large portion of the land within the Flanders Fire District, which encompasses a portion of the pine barrens, is publicly owned and off the tax rolls. And despite having one of the smallest budgets in Suffolk County—about $674,000 for 2013—the department prides itself on its top-of-the-line equipment and training.
“We’re not a fancy fire department,” Chief Todd Ryan said Monday night, explaining that they are still well-equipped to respond to fires, but don’t spend on lavish bars or amenities like some departments do. “I personally feel that we have some of the best trained people that any fire department could have.”
To celebrate its 65th anniversary, the Flanders Fire Department will host a parade this Saturday, September 28, at 3 p.m., that begins at Longneck Boulevard and travels down Flanders Road to the Flanders Men’s Club, where a party will follow. Community members are invited to the free event, which will offer complimentary hot dogs, soda, face painting and music, as well as a cash bar. The fire department will also hold a 50/50 raffle that will fund a scholarship for a college student from Flanders.
Flanders Road will be closed to all traffic between Longneck Boulevard and Chauncey Road between 3 and 5 p.m. to make way for the parade. Organizers said they are expecting about 18 local departments to participate.
Chief Ryan explained that he and the other members have been planning the celebration for about a year, as a way to honor the older firefighters. “This is more about them,” he said.
Eighty-three-year-old Michael DeNicolo, the department’s oldest member, joined at the age of 18 in 1949, just a year after the department formed. Despite moving away between 1992 and 2002, he remains its longest serving member.
“They’ve come a long, long way,” Mr. DeNicolo said of the department, which now boasts about 10 trucks, including an antique truck, a high water rescue vehicle and several boats.
He recalled the department’s first fire truck, a 1920s-era vehicle donated by a local junkyard. He said the volunteers relied on donations from community members and passed the hat around during their own meetings. “It was tough times,” he recalled.
Firefighters held their first meetings either at the Bay View Market in Flanders or at the homes of volunteers. In 1948, Ted Havens donated a parcel of land off Flanders Road to the department and, three years later, the firehouse was completed. It has undergone several expansions and renovations since 1951.
During Mr. DeNicolo’s tenure as chief from 1963 to 1965, the community experienced one of the largest forest fires on record. It broke out in 1964, and spread from Flanders to Hampton Bays and East Quogue. A total of 42 fire departments provided mutual aid, and assistance was also offered by the Air National Guard.
He recalled the generous response from community members, who dropped off plenty of food for volunteers during the course of the week-long battle. “I like the camaraderie,” he said. “It’s like family, you know? We all take care of each other.”
Anacarolina Hershman, who joined the department in 2005, said she enjoys teaching the younger members, including girls who want to join when they turn 18. “I like to show young people that you can achieve anything,” she said.
Chief Ryan agreed, explaining that the department welcomes anyone willing to commit the time to serving the community. “Everybody is treated the same once you complete the fire school and prove that you want to be here,” he said.
The chief explained that the department sent one of its fire trucks to the Long Beach Fire Department, which suffered devastating losses during Hurricane Sandy last fall. He said they will return it this fall. A group of Flanders firefighters, including Chief Ryan, drove that same truck in a convoy to Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The truck helped provide light to emergency responders after power was lost.
Another incident that’s burned into the memories of Flanders firefighters is the Sunrise Wildfires of 1995 that scoured thousands of acres of pine barrens and even crossed Sunrise Highway. The chief recalled going close to 38 hours without sleep, and the tremendous response from neighboring departments.
Dave Fox, known affectionately as “Bubba,” has served for close to 48 years with the department. He said all volunteers should enjoy Saturday’s anniversary celebration. “Everybody takes something out of this that’s their own,” he said.
Mr. DeNicolo agreed, explaining that the fire department has always been a great source of pride.
“It’s always been a big part of my heart,” he said. “In fact, my wife has often said that she thought I loved the fire department more than her.”