Learning to work on a hand crew in Rich & Nicole Polestro's S130/190 class.
Learning to work on a hand crew in Rich & Nicole Palestro’s S130/190 class.

Celebrating 20 Years of Training Wildfire Fighters

by Beth Young

There’s been a lot of attention of late to wildfires in the western United States, but outside of the tight network of the firefighting world, few people know that many wildland firefighters have learned the ropes right here in our backyard.

The New York Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, formed in response to the 1995 Sunrise Wildfires, celebrated its 20th year of training firefighters the last week in October.

Every autumn for the past 20 years, wildland firefighters from throughout the country, as well as local volunteers, have converged on Brookhaven National Laboratory for a week of training on everything from the basics of working on a fire containment line to best techniques for sawing down trees to overseeing prescribed burns and learning to run major interagency emergency scenes.

They also train local firefighters to use brush trucks, fortified high clearance fire trucks that carry hundreds of gallons of water deep into the woods. These trucks are the backbone of local volunteer fire department’s wildfire response capabilities.

The Academy held an awards celebration on the morning of Oct. 26, and then took the press to Pine Meadows County Park off of the Moriches-Riverhead Road to watch sawyers, who know all the ins and outs of chainsaws and felling trees, at work. 

The only major fire academy of its kind in the northeastern United States, the wildfire academy is equal parts firefighting training and an interactive classroom for people who want to learn how to work within a huge network of different agencies at incidents ranging from major hurricanes to blackouts, winter storms, earthquakes and even large festivals and events.

In the past 20 years, more than 7,000 students have gone through the Academy in our backyard.

A Local Hero

DEC Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher and Central Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic at the Oct. 26 award ceremony.
DEC Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher and Central Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic at the Oct. 26 award ceremony.

New York Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher, who lives on Shelter Island, did much of his training to run prescribed fires at the academy.

But in recent years, he’s been training on the incident management side of the academy, and his qualification as a Type 3 Logistics Section Chief has made him a valuable state asset.

He’s been deployed with New York’s Incident Management team all over the country — from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility convict escape in upstate New York.

“No one agency can do this by themselves. It’s always an interagency effort,” said Mr. Gallagher. 

Organization of response to major disasters starts with all different agencies having the same vocabulary and understanding of their duties. This standardization, set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is known as an Incident Command System, or ICS. One of the Academy’s missions is to offer top-notch training in setting up an Incident Command.

“I’ve been all over the country, to hurricanes, wildfires and beetle outbreaks,” said Mr. Gallagher. “I learned that skill set here.”

As a state forest ranger, Mr. Gallagher took part in the DEC’s six-month firefighting academy, but he became an expert in running prescribed burns at the New York Wildfire & Incident Academy. He’s now the only certified prescribed fire “burn boss” on Long Island.

For many years, prescribed fires on Long Island were conducted solely to promote native grassland habitats.

But many of Long Island’s woodlands are densely packed with unhealthy or dying trees, especially since the outbreak of the southern pine beetle, and this increase in fuel load worries foresters.

Mr. Gallagher said he’s now beginning to work on prescribed fires in woodlands here, in an attempt to make the woods more safe than before.

He’s also been working with Brookhaven National Laboratory, where a major wildfire started in April 2012, on creating real fire breaks around the perimeter of the lab.

Demonstrating the proper way to carry a Pulaski in Rich & Nicole Palestro's S130/190 class.
Demonstrating the proper way to carry a Pulaski in Rich & Nicole Palestro’s S130/190 class.

Learning the Ropes

Out on a field behind Berkner Hall at BNL, beyond a cluster of tents and generators set up by the ICS training crew, students in Rich and Nicole Palestro’s S130/190 basic wildland firefighting class were learning what it takes to work on a fire line. 

The week-long class provides the essential skills in becoming a wildland firefighter — learning about fire behavior, types of fuels and how to gauge the moisture in those fuels, as well as about different duties and life in western fire camps, with hands-on training in cutting fire breaks, deploying fire shelters and using measuring instruments in the field. Weather permitting, the class usually concludes with a prescribed burn.

That morning, dressed in green and yellow Nomex uniforms, they’d picked out tools typically used by what’s known as a Type II hand crew, the most basic crew working a fire. 

Chris DiCintio's Wildfire Power Saws class looks over their work felling a tree in Pine Meadows County Park.
Chris DiCintio’s Wildfire Power Saws class looks over their work felling a tree in Pine Meadows County Park.

Using specially designed hoes, rakes, shovels and Pulaskis (a combination axe and adze), the handcrew’s job is to remove all the vegetation in a line surrounding an area, at a width determined by the fire conditions, until nothing remains but mineral soil. If you’ve dug a good line, a wildfire will not cross it. And that’s the essence of the job.

Type II handcrew firefighters can expand their training to become hotshots — super-capable and fit handcrews who are assigned to the the most difficult handcrew jobs, or to smokejumpers, who are hotshots that parachute into their work assignment area.

Sawyers, trained in the work of felling trees with chainsaws, are an essential part of wildland firefighting, and 24 students in this year’s Wildfire Power Saws class were hard at work in the Pine Meadows County Park on Oct. 26.

It was a drizzly, muddy day as Central Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic took the press into the preserve, explaining that sawyers were working to help manage the property to maintain a grassland habitat there. As the preserve’s name hints, it’s a meadow dotted with pine trees.

“Grasslands are one of the fastest disappearing ecosystems on Long Island,” said Mr. Pavacic.

Historically, these habitats were created by wildfires or by human clearing, but with modern fire suppression and the preservation of the land, management becomes essential. Preserved meadows are often mowed to keep the grassland habitat intact, and prescribed burns can also be used for maintenance.

Adam Robedee limbs a tree in Chris Dicintio's saws class.
Adam Robedee limbs a tree in Chris Dicintio’s saws class.

“Fire gets rid of non-native species and native species are fire dependent,” said Mr. Pavacic. “There’s a perception that grasslands are not as important as woods, but they’re an important habitat.”

In the woods, instructor Chris DiCintio was overseeing three students — Timothy Yeatts, Adam Robedee and Michael Putnam, all DEC employees and experienced woodsmen. 

Before Mr. Putnam used a technique involving a wedge to help guide the fall of a nearby tree, Mr. DiCintio explained how he had sized up his escape routes, cleared debris and assured that there were no hazards surrounding him before setting to work felling the tree.

Two Decades of Commitment

At the awards ceremony, Mr. Pavacic reflected on the Academy’s history and honored a slew of people from federal, state, county and local agencies who have helped build it to what it is today.

Award recipients at the Oct. 26 20th Anniversary ceremony.
Award recipients at the Oct. 26 20th Anniversary ceremony.

“The Academy was founded in response to a need, the desire to improve training skills for our local firefighters, first responders and emergency services personnel, to improve responses to incidents including wildfires and natural disasters,” said Mr. Pavacic. “We also have tried to develop and follow state and national standards, in an attempt to transfer skill sets across borders.”

“The folks involved in this Academy are unselfish, giving, cooperative, self-sacrificing and very talented,” he added. “They work hard and make a difference each and every day.”

More information on the New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy is online here.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

One thought on “Celebrating 20 Years of Training Wildfire Fighters

  1. Thanks for highlighting the work of this local fire-fighting academy – Heroes in our midst. Your reporting shows your astute knowledge of this field, from your own training as a fire-fighter. Brava! (You might add that to your bio above.)

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