Column: The Fire In Kings Point Park Remembered

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Six years ago this month, I wrote an e-mail about a fire that had a fleeting appearance in the news. In the short time since, it has been all but forgotten:

Dear Family and Friends,
As I write at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, in the year 2013, emergency vehicles are passing my house again.
What alerted me to the fire in Kings Point Park was the steady stream of fire apparatus and flashing lights traveling Hicks Lane in waves, all heading in one direction, day and night. At dinnertime last evening, I made my way to the entrance to Kings Point Park off Red Brook Road, which was the location of the firefighter command center inside the park. Being on site explained what few of us understand about a fire of magnitude.
I parked the car and walked into a clearing that was barely lit. As I arrived there, a group of firemen emerged from the interior of the park. They were walking together in a loose formation, all in their gear, the arm patches identifying their home fire companies unreadable in the semi-dark. They walked weary and worn.
There were too many uniforms to count, many of them having already seen service. At 7 p.m., the Nassau County Fire Marshal told me he estimated there were 400 firefighters at the site. Forty fire departments in Nassau County had been summoned. Five fire departments came from Suffolk County.
The process by which such a massive response was triggered looked something like this: On Friday, Chief Raymond Plakstis of the Alert Fire Department had guided his fire company’s labors to subdue the fire. At first, the fire seemed to have been beaten, but then it revived. Ray, a fire chief with years of experience and a cadre of seasoned fellow volunteer fire fighters, recognized it was time to call on neighboring fire companies for help. This triggered a mutual aid agreement among fire companies on the north shore of Long Island in the Eighth Battalion, which then triggered a wider circle of aid.
A Nassau County Emergency Management employee told me that even though it was commonly communicated to the public that the fire started Friday afternoon, it actually only revealed itself Friday afternoon and likely started days before that. The fire was deep and entrenched.
Kings Point Park is 175 acres. The Village of Kings Point has leased the park to the Great Neck Park District since the 1930s. The park has picnic areas, ball fields, and five miles of a trail through the woods that pass over 14 small wood bridges spanning ravines.
The ground cover in the park in the wooded area, which comprises much of the park, can be six feet deep, and this is where the fire persisted, among the layers of twigs and leaves that have fallen there for more than a century, creating a deep spongy bog.
Firefighters say the fire is “underground.” By this they mean it is a fire that travels outward, not upward into the canopy. This is a fire whose true scope and complexity is hidden.
The smoke from the fire was thick and choking. From a helicopter above the fire, an infrared heat sensor measured the temperature of the fire at 1,000 degrees.
The Red Cross was at the site providing sustenance to the fire fighters, who went in in teams and stayed a set duration of time before they were pulled out. One team went in when one team came out, and the lineup continued, each team replaced by another team of firefighters.
The Suffolk fire companies provided fire vehicles Nassau County fire companies do not have. These fire apparatus are referred to as stump jumpers, meaning they can maneuver over hostile terrain (move like a tank) and still deliver firefighting capability.
A bulldozer and a backhoe followed by crews using chain saws, shovels and rakes cut a perimeter around an area of about three acres to mark a containment zone for the fire. On the south and west, meeting in a V, there are two small streams inside the park. At the east end of the park, the fire can come closest to nearby homes.
Tonight there was no wind. Had there been wind, we would be looking at a far worse situation.
This was the second fire in as many weeks in the late fall months of 2013, the first having been in Bethpage State Park, where the winds were high. This is the season for fires; the dew point is low, the ground thirsting for rain.

In the days following the fire, the newspaper coverage labeled it “a brush fire” in Kings Point Park. Most Great Neck residents were none the wiser about what had occurred in our own backyard.
It could be said we live insulated lives without an understanding of how lucky we are to have our families and homes made safe through the efforts of people we have never met. We are free to flourish and go about our daily lives because others keep vigil.
In addition to our own Great Neck Alert and Vigilant fire departments, these were some of the communities whose fire department rigs were at the scene that night at the entrance to the park on Red Brook Road: Port Washington, Manhasset-Lakeville, New Hyde Park, Floral Park, Garden City, Plainview, Syosset, Farmingdale, North Babylon, Melville, Wyandanch, Huntington, Elmont, Deer Park, Long Beach, North Merrick, Bethpage, Wantagh, Valley Stream; the Nassau County Public Works and the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management.

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