Crews Practice Wildfire Drills At Flanders Preserve

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An estimated 13,000 gallons of water, procured just minutes earlier from nearby Wildwood Lake with the help of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and a pair of bright orange collapsible buckets, were dumped on the forest at the David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve on Tuesday afternoon.

The water, however, was not poured on actual flames, because those in charge of the brush fire drill—members of the New York Army National Guard Aviation Air Support unit, 3rd Battalion/142nd Aviation Regiment—ultimately decided that the afternoon’s blustery winds proved too big a risk to start a controlled burn in the Flanders preserve.

Members of the 3rd Battalion/142nd Aviation Regiment were partnering with Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission staff, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers and representatives from the DEC’s Region 1 office in Stony Brook to practice brush fire drills utilizing the two helicopters. Another training exercise is scheduled again at the preserve for Saturday, May 3, allowing additional personnel and volunteers to participate if they could not attend Tuesday’s event.

“The more familiar these folks become with the capability of the helicopters, the more likely they are to call for that resource because they feel comfortable,” said John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, who attended the exercise.

The commission set up the training sessions as part of its Wildfire Task Force in order to better prepare members when they must battle future wildfires. These exercises are practiced each year in the area in the wake of the Sunrise Wildfires of 1995, which burned for four days and charred thousands of acres of pine barrens between Flanders and Westhampton. Mr. Pavacic noted that the unit was unable to train last year due to uncooperative weather. The task force was formed shortly after those wildfires.

Training organizers were reminded of the need for such exercises following another round of brush fires that took place in 2012, mostly in Manorville, Calverton and Riverhead. Those fires scorched more than 1,000 acres of pine barrens over two days and also destroyed several homes.

Staff Sergeant Mike Roeding, a member of the Army National Guard, said the 2012 fires were frustrating because of the long delay before his unit received permission to go airborne and assist volunteers who were battling the flames on the ground. The pilots, however, were never asked to collect and dump water on the blaze.

“We could see [the fire] from the hangar,” Staff Sgt. Roeding said on Tuesday, noting that his unit is based out of MacArthur Airport in Islip.

He explained that a typical brush truck, commonly referred to as a “stump jumper” by volunteers, can carry approximately 500 gallons of water and that it takes about 20 minutes to fill such a vehicle. That does not include travel time. In contrast, a helicopter can collect some 660 gallons of water almost instantly and reach a target site in as little as 10 minutes.

On Tuesday, the two helicopter crews spent about an hour collecting water from Wildwood Lake in Northampton and dropping it onto the preserve. Rangers on the ground used the opportunity to practice their radio communications with the pilots. The collapsible buckets outfitted on the helicopters, called “Bambi Buckets,” can carry up to 660 gallons of water at a time.

But in order to be deployed, helicopter crews must first receive approval from the New York State Office of Emergency Management. And before that happens, fire chiefs on the ground must request air support from the Suffolk County Office of Emergency Services, who then evaluates a situation and, if deemed necessary, requests the air support.

Air support was called in to help volunteers battle the 1995 Sunrise Wildfires but not the 2012 brush fires, according to Staff Sgt. Roeding, a 26-year veteran of the military. Two years ago, members of his unit were called in and asked to use their infrared gear to help those on the ground hunt down hot spots to prevent doused flames from reigniting.

While speaking to the group gathered on Tuesday in Flanders,

Chief Warrant Officer Robert Hansen of the Army National Guard said: “The process is like ordering a pizza—it’s sometimes a disaster. If it’s going to get to the houses, don’t hesitate and call us.”

The main objective of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission’s Wildfire Task Force is to train those who must respond during such emergencies, according to Mr. Pavacic. He also said he would like for such drills to be offered every year.

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