Dangers of fighting wildfires

July 2, 2013 10:17:02 AM PDT
More than a year after he cheated death, Jim McGarry is still awestruck by his close call as a wall of fire raced right towards him.

"I don't know how we escaped that whole thing. Thank God we did," he said. "If we would have went right instead of went left, we might not be there today."

He and two other volunteer firemen were among the hundreds fighting a massive wildfire in Manorville last April.

When their brush truck became mired in muck, the flames overtook it. They found themselves on foot, forced to dive through the flames to get to safety. They weren't completely unscathed, but they were so lucky.

"When you're dealing with a wildland fire, you want to be very careful about where you are in regard to the head of the fire. The front of the fire - the moving fire front," John Pavacic said.

Pavacic runs the Central Pine Barrens Commission. He says there were lessons to be learned from the near tragedy when McGarry and his crew dispatched themselves to the flames with no big picture knowledge of the wind direction or speed. it was a decision that nearly killed them.

"We probably shouldn't have gone in alone, should have had another truck ahead of us or behind us, should have had a bigger crew," McGarry said.

Since then, emergency management officials have drawn up new procedures to improve command and control and communication among the 109 volunteer departments that serve Suffolk County.

Jim McGarry has learned his lesson, but says all the rules in the world can do little to protect you when you're staring fire in the face.

"You can't fight mother nature! She's always gonna win," he said.

Little bit more than a year later it certainly seems like Mother Nature has forgotten what happened here. There's some evidence of the fire that ravaged these Pine Barrens, but for the most part it's all growing back. Suffolk County leaders say they have not forgotten and they hope their new policies will help save lives the next time a fire goes wild.