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Brush Fire Wreaks Havoc on Long Island Resort Communities

August 26, 1995

EASTPORT, N.Y. (AP) _ A brush fire raged out of control for a second day Friday near the Hamptons, turning the resort playground for the rich into a disaster area choked by 40-foot flames and billowing white smoke.

More than 1,500 volunteer firefighters waged a ground war against the fire with hoses, shovels and picks. Seven National Guard helicopters dumped 200-gallon loads of water pumped from a nearby lake onto the 5-mile-long, 1 1/2-mile-wide fire zone.

Despite the intensity and swift spread of the fire, no residents were injured. Forty firefighters suffered minor injuries, including smoke inhalation and exhaustion, said Sara Gaffney, a spokeswoman for Gov. George Pataki.

The fast-moving fire burned across 6,000 acres of land and destroyed a lumber yard and one home. The Westhampton commuter railroad station and at least seven nearby homes, mostly small, wood-frame structures, were damaged.

``It’s like being in hell,″ said volunteer firefighter L.J. Heming, 33, of Middle Island. ``We were right there in the woods and a wall of fire went right over us. We pumped every ounce of water that we had. ... Everyone was screaming on the radio for water, water!″

Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press that investigators noticed a certain pattern in the way the fire burned, indicating it may have been set.

Threatened homes included slope-roofed, post-modern country houses typically sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the fire posed little threat to the more posh homes of well-known Hamptons residents such as Steven Spielberg, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.

An exception was composer Marvin Hamlisch, who hosed down the roof of his Westhampton Beach summer house and fled back to Manhattan on Thursday, bringing along a favorite picture of his wife in case the fire got to their home.

``I just want it to be over,″ he said. ``You pray that your house, your neighbors, be spared.″

Hamlisch left voluntarily. About 250 residents were ordered to evacuate from more dangerous areas; one told of a rain of ashes.

The area was eerily quiet on Friday, when traffic jams of luxury cars normally would be headed to the island’s east end for the last weekend before the traditional Labor Day end to the summer resort season.

The smoke grounded the helicopters and private planes that ordinarily ferry in the wealthy. The Westhampton airport was shut down, the Long Island Rail Road curtailed and many local roads _ including part of the Sunrise Highway, the main link to the Hamptons _ also were closed.

On Thursday night, streets in the wealthy resort communities were jammed with cars loaded with people fleeing with clothes, pets and furniture. More than 100 people spent the night at Center Moriches High School, which was converted into an emergency shelter.

Terry Van Essche, a summer renter from Monte Carlo, said he abandoned his Remsenburg home at 2 a.m. when the flames became visible from the house. The retiree packed up his wife, pregnant daughter and three grandchildren and headed to the shelter.

``I figured it was time to go,″ he said.

The fire began Thursday in woods near the Eastport campus of Suffolk County College. Whipped by winds up to 20 mph, it roared through rain-starved woodlands, leaped a highway and crept southeast on Friday.

Some firefighters said their efforts were becoming an exercise in frustration.

``It’s like fighting a losing battle,″ said 22-year-old Eddie Wheeler of the North Bellmore Fire Department. ``(You) knock it down for a few minutes and then it comes back up.″

President Clinton dispatched Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt and other officials, experts and equipment.

Government planes rigged to fight fires were expected to aid the effort, but never arrived, apparently because of a bureaucratic mixup. Officials said two planes would be on the scene by Saturday.

``We are looking to get this fire contained, attack it and get ground crews to dig fire lines so the fire can’t proceed any further,″ Witt said.

Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato toured the area. ``It’s real scary stuff,″ said Pataki, who had already declared a state of emergency.

Gaping stretches of burned-out forest were obvious, with blackened trees stripped of their foliage by the flames. Wisps of smoke drifted up from the ground in areas where the fire had already passed. An occasional burst of greenery was seen in areas miraculously spared.

In one bizarre tableau, a development of 20 Westhampton houses stood intact amid a totally burned out area. Firefighters were able to split the fire, which raged on either side of the homes.

All along the edges of the blaze, yards and yards of fire hoses were intertwined as sweating firemen mopped their brows with bandanas.

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