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As Firefighters Mop Up, Residents Show Thanks

August 27, 1995

WESTHAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) _ Firefighters on Sunday doused the last hot spots from a forest fire that had threatened expensive resort communities, and people whose homes were saved posted thank-you notes on their mailboxes.

The fire was 90 percent contained and the U.S. Forest Service hoped to have it completely contained by the end of the day.

Several hundred firefighters remained on the job on eastern Long Island to track down and extinguish smoldering embers. An occasional pocket of flame sent smoking rising into the air.

``You have to make sure everything’s out, bit by bit,″ said Pat Ebarb, an assistant director for the Department of Agriculture. ``It’s not very glamorous, but it has to be done.″

The breeze was light, down from gusts of more than 20 mph that drove the flames through pine forest on Thursday and Friday. But no rain was expected until at least Friday, forecasters said. The area has been without rain for three weeks.

The fire destroyed one house, damaged nine other homes, a business and a train station, and shut down railroads and roadways. About 6,000 acres were blackened.

At one subdivision, firefighters managed to protect the homes of 100 people while backyard trees went up in flames.

John Carter, a Coast Guard electronics technician who lives in the subdivision with his wife and 11-month-old daughter, said he saw an aerial photograph of the area. ``This is just a dot and everything around it is black,″ he said.

Some 400 Westhampton residents were forced to evacuate at the height of the fire, some 70 miles east of New York City.

Joseph Monteith, chief of department for the Suffolk County Police, has said that arson was suspected. Sources told The Associated Press that the blaze first burned in a straight line _ atypical for an accidental fire.

The stench of smoke still hung over sections of the Sunrise Highway, a main artery busy with traffic other than fire trucks as weekend visitors headed home from the exclusive Hamptons villages.

Several residents put thank-you notes on their mailboxes and at the entrance to their subdivision for the hundreds of firefighters who came from across Long Island.

``We’re all thinking about becoming volunteer firemen,″ said Glenn Pantophlet.

Lorna Duffee said, ``We owe them our lives.″

Sandy Oliveto recalled collecting her belongings so fast Thursday that most of the hangers she grabbed from her closet were empty.

``I still have butterflies. The feeling doesn’t go away,″ she said.

Not everybody was smiling.

Frank Nicotra, owner of Westhampton Foreign & Domestic Experts Ltd., estimated he lost between $100,000 and $150,000 when the fire destroyed several classic cars on his lot, including a 1958 Romeo Spider Veloce, a 1965 Cadillac convertible and a 1968 Mercedes.

``It was a nightmare to see, ″ he said. ``I don’t feel sorry for the trees at all.″