Firefighter runs through wildfire to survive

April 10, 2012 8:50:43 PM PDT
A volunteer firefighter who was injured battling the massive wildfire on Long Island is talking about the counter intuitive choice he had to make; to run into the flames to save his life.

Firefighters on Long Island had to deal with a new hot spot that flared up Tuesday night in Manorville.

More than 1,000 acres have burned on Long Island and as of Tuesday night it's mostly contained.

Suffolk County is also now under a State of Emergency.

"I'm thinking I'm glad to be home, I'm glad to be safe, there was a time yesterday when I thought I wasn't going to be home again," said Jim McGarry, a firefighter.

As the Pine Barrens wildfire raged toward them Monday, Jim McGarry and two other Manorville firefighters suddenly realized that the fire was winning.

"The fire was basically chasing us because the wind was whipping the fire was surrounding us all around," McGarry said.

That's when their brush truck got mired in the muck and they were forced to abandon it and make the hardest decision of their lives.

"I can't even explain what goes through your mind, just the instinct to escape natural instinct, let's move, we got to keep moving, let's go," McGarry said, "We had to run through the fire to get out of the fire."

With a wall of flames closing in, the three volunteers went right through them and came out the other side.

"If we went right instead of left I probably wouldn't be here right now," McGarry said.

But they weren't home free yet.

Instead, they were lost in the middle of nowhere.

It took police two hours to spot them from the air.

"Aviation was able to take the GPS coordinates off our moving map and other resources were able to use that to rescue the firefighters that had been injured," said Inspector Stuart Cameron, Suffolk County Police Department.

Now all three heroes are home with their families.

McGarry says the first thing he did was hug his wife and kids.

He's been a firefighter for 17 years, but he never imagined anything like this.

"I was actually scared. I'm not afraid of fire, I was never afraid of fire. That day I was afraid of fire, I actually had fear in me," McGarry said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced the progress Tuesday afternoon. Bellone said hundreds of volunteer firefighters prevented what could have been a "significant disaster." Three firefighters were injured in the brush fires that began Monday afternoon, including McGarry.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also praised the efforts of local officials and firefighters. He declared a state of emergency in the county, making it eligible for financial assistance.

Firefighters will use a state fire helicopter to dump water on the remaining fire from above. They will first have to search the surrounding area to make sure there are no people in the drop area.

The flames forced dozens of people from their homes, with mandatory evacuations in parts of Riverhead, and destroyed two homes and one commercial building.

More than 100 agencies responded to the fire. Officials say it started with two fires, one in Ridge and one in Manorville, that came together.

"It's very dry out," Assistant Fire Chief Steve Gray said. "The winds kept the fire pushing in all sorts of directions, as well as up into the into the trees."

About a dozen people had spent the night at the senior center in Riverhead.

The flames also put hundreds of horses at risk. Stables in Manorville are home to more than 300 horses. Owners in the evacuation area scrambled to get the animals to safety.

People from across the horse community came together to help move the animals and provide a place for them to stay.

Flames were also reported on part of Brookhaven National Lab Property in Upton, but it's mostly a wooded area and no homes are threatened.

Follow these guidelines to reduce the risk of brush fires:

  • Use ashtrays in vehicles. Discarding cigarettes, matches and smoking materials is a violation of New Jersey law.
  • Obtain necessary permits for campfires. Don't leave fires unattended. Douse them completely.
  • Keep matches and lighters away from children. Teach them the dangers of fire.
  • People living in the forest should maintain a defensible buffer by clearing vegetation within 30 feet of any structures. Also, make sure fire trucks can pass down your driveway.
  • Report suspicious vehicles and individuals. Arson is a primary cause of brush fires.


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