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Jun 3, 2009 1:18 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

2009 sees more North Sea fires in a year than most firefighters can remember

Jun 3, 2009 1:18 PM

The North Sea firefighters have been hammered with an unprecedented number of fires in their district in the past year.

For as long as any of the firefighters can remember, any more than three major North Sea fires during a chief’s two-year term was considered a lot. But Chief Steve Phillips Jr. has already led his crews in battling three major fires—and he was just elected in December.

“The guys tell me I’ve been on a roll ... ever since I got voted in,” Chief Phillips said recently.

Fire marshals have not found that any of the recent blazes were the result of foul play, and no one could offer a definitive explanation for the uptick in fires.

Chief Phillips said an instructor at the Suffolk County firefighting training facility in Yaphank recently told him that North Sea is leading the county in its number of fires this year.

“Everybody’s calling me the black cloud around here,” the chief said.

No one in the department, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, remembers the fires ever being so frequent, according to Chief Phillips, and, including being called in to aid the Southampton Fire Department, he’s been responding to about two structure fires a month.

North Sea’s streak started back in November 2008, while Chief Phillips was an assistant chief, when a Maple Avenue two-story rental was burned beyond hope of repair. The tenants were home at the time and a couple suffered minor injuries as they fled the burning house. A faulty projection television was suspected to be the cause of the fire.

Then, in December 2008, a contractor arrived at a Parkside Avenue house to find that a fire had started in the basement. Chief Phillips called in six other fire departments to help battle the blaze. One firefighter suffered minor injuries when a drywall ceiling, under the weight of water filling the attic, collapsed on him. Chief Phillips took a scrape as well. He slipped on the ice at the scene. Fire marshals suspected the fire started in an electrical service panel.

In March, a fire gutted a Cove Road house. Fire marshals said the fire appears to have started in the living room of the two-bedroom cottage, but the cause was indeterminable.

A North Sea Road home was destroyed on April 9 when an early morning fire started in the garage. The cause was not determined. Chief Phillips said propane cylinders stored in the garage exploded during the fire and luxury cars were destroyed.

In addition to fighting fires in their own district, North Sea firefighters also respond to neighboring districts’ major fires.

Chief Phillips said there has been a role reversal as of late. “We’re always going to their fires,” he said of the past norm. “Now, they’re always coming to ours.”

“When we get called to North Sea from Westhampton to help them out, that’s a big fire,” said Westhampton Beach Second Assistant Chief John “Chip” Bancroft. He said once this year he was given directions to a fire that included “turn left at the burned down house on the corner.”

Though fire marshals have not publicly classified any of the recent North Sea fires as suspicious, Mr. Bancroft still suspects arson may be an explanation for North Sea’s rise in fires. “There’s got to be someone behind it,” he said.

Westhampton Beach has had its own rise in fires of late too.

“Last year was out of control, like one a month,” Mr. Bancroft said. He noted that he’s not counting Dumpster fires or small kitchen fires—only the big fires that required Westhampton Beach to call in neighboring departments for help.

“Sometimes it just seems like there’s quite a few in a row,” said Southampton Town Fire Marshal Cheryl Kraft. “It’s not atypical to have a lot of fires in a row because of weather conditions.”

Ms. Kraft said that, lately, many house fires started with a heating malfunction or an electrical problem, like the misuse of an extension cord. “Nothing that looks like arson for profit,” she added.

The town fire marshals have seen fewer cases this year of fires that started with an unattended candle, Ms. Kraft noted. Either people are getting smarter, or they’re just not spending the money on ornamental candles anymore because of the waning economy, she said.

The Southampton Fire Department is reporting that the number of fires in its service area has gone up a little in 2009, but the total number of calls has gone down dramatically, by as much as 30 to 40 percent.

Chief Roy “Buddy” Wines IV said he thinks higher false alarm fees the Southampton Village Board instituted last year helped in a big way to reduce the volume of calls. First Assistant Chief Rodney “Chip” Pierson said the sagging economy may be another factor, since there are fewer contractors working on homes.

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Thanks to all the Firefighters, you're doing a great job!
Victims of disaster can contact the American Red Cross at 728-5808.
By Katherine (15), Hampton Bays on May 12, 09 12:00 PM
Yes , a big thank you to all the volunteer firefighters !
By PrivateerMatt (390), Weesuck Creek , EQ on May 12, 09 12:34 PM
Volunteer or paid firefighter - we all should be proud of the jobs they do. Their jobs as firefighters have no time clock.
By mother of firefighter (18), Southampton on May 12, 09 2:24 PM
We should all be very proud of the work our volunteer firefighters and EMS do for us each and every day - - 24 hours a day - - 365 days a year!

Thank you for your service to our community!
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on May 12, 09 8:54 PM
These guys responded to a puff-back at my house. Quick, efficient, polite, helped me calm down, made sure all was ok before they left. I cannot thank them enough! You have to be a very special kind of person to run to the aid of strangers at all hours. Many thanks, guys (& girls), for being there!
By Ms. Jane Q. Public (147), Southampton on May 13, 09 9:08 AM
There can never been enough said about volunteer fireman! They protect our communities and without them who knows where we'd be. Thank you to all the men and women who voluntarily serve in the fire departments and EMS crews across the East End helping to keep us safe! It takes a special decidated person to do their jobs and for that they should be very proud!
By pine1217 (6), EH on May 13, 09 10:39 AM