Firefighters gained the upper hand in the battle against the huge Westhampton wildfire on Long Island on Saturday, permitting evacuees to return to their homes, some fire companies to return to their stations, most roads in the area to reopen and train service to resume.
Although puffs of smoke lingered and some blazes still flared up in the 5,500 acres charred by the Sunrise Fire--named for the highway it shut down Thursday--local and federal firefighters talked about “mopping-up” operations over the next several days. At least eight homes and a lumberyard were destroyed.
“The fire has not as yet been officially declared contained, but it is contained sufficiently that it is safe enough to have the people who were evacuated to return to their homes,” Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney said Saturday afternoon.
“It’s in the mop-up operation, and you keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t jump up and bite you,” said Larry Newman, an operations chief from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Warren DuBois, the U.S. Forest Service official in charge, said the fire was “90% contained.” He said the fire would have been considered contained Saturday “had it not been for high winds.” He predicted that the fire would be considered contained by 6 p.m. today.
Gaffney said that although about 400 people displaced by the fire could return to their homes, a state of emergency would remain in effect until the fire was completely out. He also said that an arson investigation is ongoing.
About 25 firefighters suffered minor injuries, officials said.
Fire crews under federal supervision, including about five 20-person teams of elite firefighters known as “hot shots” and a pair of C-130 tanker planes, joined weary local firefighters Saturday. The volunteers had battled the state’s largest blaze in nearly 90 years since it broke out Thursday afternoon.
The C-130s had been promised by federal officials shortly after the blaze broke out but were delayed by procedural missteps.
“They’ll still be a benefit to the firefighting operation because they’ll get retardant on it,” said David Fischler, Suffolk’s fire commissioner.
But he said the bulk of the work had already been done.
Dick Mangan, an official from Missoula, Mont., who was directing the federal firefighting operations, conceded that the C-130s were a little late in terms of stemming the blaze but said they would be kept on Long Island. He said the federal operation costs about $100,000 a day.
“From a straight fire suppression standpoint, right now it’s not necessary,” Mangan said.