It came like a great storm.
The skies darkened, smoke filled the air, the noise almost deafening. When he saw the flames, Dean Culver dropped to the pavement, too far from his car to seek proper shelter.
And then, in an unexpected move, the flames jumped.
In an instant, the wall of fire leapt from treetop to treetop, skipping over the 400-foot-wide asphalt span that is Sunrise Highway — its 200-foot-tall flames unable to burn the road, or even lick the army of firefighters flattened up against it.
It was that moment on August 24, 1995, that the fear and determination set in. They finally realized what they were about to face, mere hours into a four-day blaze that would become known as the Sunrise Wildfire, which decimated 5,500 acres of the Central Pine Barrens in the largest brush fire of New York State since 1908.
“I guess I’m 25 years older — I’m 67 now — but I remember it vividly,” said Mr. Culver, then chief of the Westhampton Beach Fire Department. “It was certainly impactful on my life.”
The Perfect Firestorm
It was a scorching Thursday afternoon when Mr. Culver got the call. A brush fire had sparked up in the woods near the Suffolk Community College Eastern Campus on Speonk-Riverhead Road, and the Eastport Fire Department needed help — abruptly pulling the chief away from a family picnic with a quick, “I’ll probably be right back.”
He had just returned from a smaller, three-day brush fire in nearby Rocky Point, now finally contained, and he couldn’t imagine it would be worse than that.
“That was the biggest fire we had had, and then ours surpassed that one,” he said. “We were at Rocky Point with our brush truck and crews, too. That was not nearly as big, but that should have foretold us that there were gonna be more problems.”
For starters, the summer was shaking out to be one of the longest dry spells in many years on Long Island. A drought watch was already in effect, with just one rainfall in the previous 19 days and low humidity.
Coupled with a buildup of “fuel” on the forest floor, including dead leaves, twigs, branches and vegetation, it was only a matter of time before disaster struck, according to John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission.
“You had the perfect storm, unfortunately,” he said. “And then you had the winds with gusts of over 30 mph. That ended up being the perfect combination of factors to really drive this and turn it into a huge conflagration. Once the fire gets up into the crown, it’s unstoppable.”
By the time Mr. Culver arrived at the scene, the battle was in full swing — the roaring fire already 50 feet high and 100 feet long, marking the first of many stands against the blaze as it easily passed by where firefighters attempted to stop it.
The fire moved south and the firefighters followed, setting up a new command post along Sunrise Highway. Simultaneously, local media jumped into action, following the billowing smoke overhead to the story. Among them were Tim Motz, Chris Francescani and Tim Laube, fresh out of college and reporting for the Southampton Press Western Edition — then the Hampton Chronicle-News — based in Westhampton Beach under the leadership of longtime news editor William Michael Pitcher.
“I remember Mike Pitcher walking in, eyes bugged out, to tell us what was going on and ‘urging’ us to get our butts in motion,” recalled Mr. Motz, explaining that the trio split up to cover as much ground as possible.
“My most distinct memory was seeing the first spark cross County Road 31,” he continued. “This was right at Gabreski [Airport], and so not far from some immense fuel tanks. When I left, I distinctly remember taking a last look at some of the places I grew up with, because I didn’t think there was a chance in hell I’d ever see them again.”
By that night, ashes were falling over Westhampton Beach, according to Mr. Laube, who lived in the apartment above the newsroom. He climbed on the roof and looked up to see a tower of smoke forming overhead, with music from a live band performing in the distance.
“I’m like, ‘They’re playing and the village is gonna burn down tonight. This is like the Titanic sinking,’” he said. “It was such a strange, eerie feeling. People were still trying to go about their business, but you could tell everybody was scared. It felt like, ‘Wow, how close is this fire?’”
In a world before social media — not to mention ubiquitous, and functional, cell phones — no one knew, except those on the ground. Determined to get up close, Mr. Francescani headed toward the front lines, smuggling himself onto a Brentwood Fire Department truck to hitch a ride.
When he hopped off, he ran up and down Sunrise Highway, lined with trucks as far as he could see, wrangling as many firefighters as he could for a few quotes. The adrenaline was palpable, he said. They were primed to go into battle, and it was “breathtaking to witness,” he said.
“I remember interviewing them against this backdrop of the biggest fire I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “It was just boring down over Sunrise Highway, and those Pine Barrens just went up. They’d been tinder dry for a long time and they just went up so fast and so ferocious.”
The Fight of Their Lives
From the staging area, the firefighters considered the sheer width of the four-lane highway, hoping it would create a firebreak and halt the blaze’s advance.
“They were hosing down the fire, but they were hosing down the opposite side, too, to keep it wet,” recalled Bo Bishop, a 30-year member of the Westhampton Beach Fire Department who was, at that time, fire police. “And it just, like, spontaneous combustion, just exploded into flame. The flame went over their heads.”
Their offensive strategy quickly switched to defense, as the fire crossed over from the north, igniting the Pine Barrens on the south side of Sunrise Highway.
“The one thing I always remember is the road doesn’t burn,” Mr. Culver said. “So every time it crossed us on the road, if I wasn’t in my vehicle, I would just lay down in the middle of the road and let it go by. Once it did, you could get up and now it’s on the other side, continuing on.”
When the fire jumped, it was officially all hands on deck. In one of the largest mutual aid calls in the history of New York State, approximately 2,500 firefighters, state and federal fire officials responded to the blaze, including 174 local fire departments from Suffolk and Nassau counties, and even the New York City Fire Department, which came to the East End for the first time in its history.
“They made that trip from New York City in about a half-hour,” Mr. Bishop said. “They were going full blast. A whole battalion of NYPD was ahead of them clearing traffic, clearing everyone ahead of them, and they made it out there in record time. They were going really fast.”
Firefighters from east of the canal also responded, among them the Bridgehampton Fire Department, where current East Hampton Fire Department Chief Gerard Turza, Jr. was a young officer on their brush truck.
“It was quite an experience for a young officer at the time, to go into something like that,” he said. “It was actually very surreal. As we started going on Sunrise Highway, as soon as we started coming up to the Shinnecock Canal, night became day. There’s really no other way to describe that. You could see the glow, you could see the flames, and we were just driving toward it.”
They headed straight into the woods, their smaller brush truck paired up with larger stump-jumpers from other departments, blazing their own trail as they passed burnt-out trucks, their crews forced to abandon after getting stuck and overrun by fire.
“It’s just like what you see on TV and in the movies,” Mr. Turza said of the blaze. “You hear this gigantic rush of air and you could hear the roar of the fire head coming toward you. It’s pretty awe-inspiring, to see exactly what happens.
“It creates its own winds, it creates its own environment, and there’s very little that you can do, aside from trying to predict it and manage it as best you can,” he continued. “The smell of the burning pine is something that I think sticks with everybody who was up there.”
Saving Westhampton Beach
After another attempted stand at Stewart Avenue, followed by a fight at Station Road, the fire inched closer and closer to Westhampton Beach. Nearby residents watched the local news in horror as its path approached and smoke dwarfed the whole village.
Governor George E. Pataki declared a state of emergency and 400 people were forced to evacuate their homes, including Dot Berdinka and her family. She was at the beach on Dune Road when she noticed the smoke billowing from the mainland.
“Everyone’s going, ‘Oh, that looks like a bad fire,’” recalled the trustee of the Westhampton Beach Historical Society, which is currently staging the exhibition, “A History of Local Firefighting on the 25th Anniversary of the Sunrise Wildfire Exhibit.”
“Little did we know, when I got home, I was told that we had to evacuate where I personally live, which is north of Montauk Highway, and to go to the Eastport High School,” she said. “People were coming in droves. I go to my husband, ‘We’re never gonna get any sleep here.’ It was a zoo, it was just a madhouse, people coming from everywhere.”
Meanwhile, the fire had encircled the Hampton West Estates neighborhood, located just west of Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, and its 227 homes. The neighborhood had once been housing for servicemembers from the nearby air base.
“Instead of being equipped with several fire hydrants, which normally have 12-inch water mains, the complex had only one hydrant with a corroded 4-inch main installed during World War II for what was, then, housing for servicemen,” Ms. Berdinka said. “It was amazing what they were able to do up there.”
The firefighters drafted water from swimming pools and every other water source they could find, soaking the blaze until the wind unexpectedly, and miraculously, shifted away from the development and back into the woods, carrying the fire with it.
“There’s no way they could have escaped, either, that’s the other thing,” Mr. Bishop said. “If they would have tried to drive their engines down Stewart Avenue, they would have caught on fire and they would have never made it. The wheels would have melted before they ever got a chance to get out of there. They were literally fighting for their lives.”
He sighed at the memory.
“It was a week from hell,” he continued. “It got very close to the village being burned to the ground. If the wind hadn’t changed direction, it would have definitely gone down Main Street and burned everything in its path.”
Later, looking at an aerial photo of the Hampton West Estates, Mr. Culver — who is credited with saving countless lives during the Sunrise Wildfire — said the black, charred land perfectly outlined the neighborhood, juxtaposed beautifully against their perfect green lawns.
“By then, career firefighters from out west were there, and one of those guys told me that they wouldn’t have even tried to prevent those houses from burning,” he said. “That’s not the way they do it out there. They do it differently. They would have let them burn and just forgotten it. Being a small area, I don’t know, we just get more aggressive and tried to stop it from burning anything.”
By Sunday, August 27, the fire was finally brought under control, with support from the National Guard, New York State forest rangers, the U.S. Forest Service, and out-of-state firefighting companies, as well as the federal government and five 20-member crews from the famed “Hot Shots,” who were flown in from California.
In total, the fire destroyed only one house — a remarkable achievement given the blaze’s 12-square-mile footprint — and 49 firefighters were hospitalized for minor injuries. There were no fatalities.
“Those guys somehow prevented the fire from causing hardly any property damage and no loss of life,” Mr. Motz said. “I have no idea how they did it, or how to adequately express my admiration for what they did, but as usual, the Coneheads put it best at the next St. Patrick’s Day parade: ‘They saved our homes, they saved our cones.’”
While it was widely believed that a discarded, lit cigarette sparked the fire, the exact cause was officially listed as undetermined. In the years since, the fire led to greater awareness of the Pine Barrens’ unique environmental conditions and helped develop better fire prevention and safety strategies, which include reintroducing prescribed fire to the area, a fire weather program, and the recent opening of the New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy.
“It was just a tremendous experience,” Mr. Turza said. “We look back 25 years, then to now, and it’s given us a good framework for our responses. We’re more vigilant, we put a lot of different things in place, changed up our training, coordinating our different resources and assets.
“And we hope that, knock on wood, if we have to go back into something like that again, we’re a little bit better prepared and we’re a little bit wiser.”
Contributed to first place News or Feature Series, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “Wow, a wonderful set of stories with fantastic pictures. The drama of the event is told well. Good job to follow-up with the ‘today’ story, looking at the recovery from fire. Loved the telling of the fireman’s story.”
As published in the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express