COPIAGUE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – A brush fire damaged or destroyed five homes in the area of Copiague and Lindenhurst, Long Island, Wednesday afternoon, and an entire neighborhood was put at risk.
As CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported, it all started with a fire at one house. But by late in the afternoon, the smoke could be seen for miles.
By sunset, crews were still spraying hot spots, CBS2’s Lou Young reported.
The houses that were destroyed and damaged are in the American Venice neighborhood on the South Shore of Long Island – a suburban community of homes and canals near a wildlife refuge on the cusp of Copiague and Lindenhurst.
The fire broke out at 37 Santa Barbara Rd. near Venetian Avenue around 1:45 p.m. An electrical short in a wall-mounted air conditioner was blamed.
Photos from the scene showed flames consuming the house. Firefighters were trying to extinguish the blaze, but only a shell of the house was left.
A woman grabbed her baby and dog and ran to the street when the fire broke out at the first house.
“All of a sudden they yelled, ‘It’s out of control!’ and at that point I lifted my head and saw the whole backyard up in flames,” said witness Laura St. Angelo.
Firefighters tried to fight the blaze at the first house.
“We couldn’t make an interior attack at the point,” said Lindenhurst Fire Chief Mike Degregorio. “We just wanted to protect the adjoining houses from exposures.”
Four more houses went up in flames anyway.
The flames went on to jump over Strongs Creek, a canal that runs behind the homes that were destroyed. The fire then spread to the tinder-dry brush at nearby Indian Island wildlife refuge, creating a huge plume of smoke.
At its worst, the air was filled with smoke and embers swirling in a brisk, changeable wind.
A total of 200 firefighters from several departments were called to the scene.
“Nine fire departments — all the fire departments from the Town of Babylon. We had a fire department from Nassau County. The Suffolk Marine Bureau came. Fire boats from all those departments came,” said Acting Suffolk County police Commissioner Tim Sini.
The smoke was thick and black as the fire raged for hours, but it had turned white as firefighters began to bring the blaze under control.
The plume of smoke was so large it was visible on weather radar.
Neighbors had to go to their roofs to stamp out small fires.
“The wind changed direction so fast that the ashes — the island was on fire — came through the neighborhood and started lighting stuff up,” said witness Simon Hick.
The heat was very intense. It melted a fence and aluminum siding on several houses that were damaged in the fire – including the one where Keith Bush lives. He was shocked at the scene when he went inside.
“I went in to get my phone charger of all things, and I saw smoke coming through the walls,” Bush said.
Two firefighters were injured, Suffolk County police said. One was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip with non-life-threatening smoke inhalation, police said.
The whole area is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy damage that happened in 2012. Many of the homes are being prepared for elevation, while others are waiting to be demolished.
The family who lived in one house that was destroyed on Santa Barbara Road was about to leave so the house could be renovated, raised and storm-proofed. The house next door, also gutted, was occupied by a family that was just getting ready to return after renovations.
But while the damage was severe, the people in charge were still breathing a sigh of relief.
“This is tragic, but it could have been a lot worse,” Sini said.
CBS2’s Lonnie Quinn explained that with the strong winds and dry conditions Wednesday afternoon, the fire risk in the area is especially high.
In the late afternoon, it was 68 degrees and bone dry in Manhattan. The dew point was 8 degrees – meaning that the air would have to be cooled to a frigid 8 degrees to produce any condensation or moisture.
The smoke and flames in Copiague was blown south from winds coming down from the north. Winds were gusting around 20 mph or more in the area.
Quinn explained that a canal like Strongs Creek would normally be one of the most effective barriers to a fire spreading, but given the conditions in this case, it was not enough.
A fire alert for much of the area expired at 8 p.m. Wednesday, but a new fire alert was issued for almost all of New Jersey until around 8 p.m. Thursday.
Quinn reported further that no rain is expected until late Thursday.