Disaster Management

Wind-Driven Flames Reduce Scores of Homes to Embers in Queens Enclave

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

On Tuesday, the blocks of tightly packed bungalows and two-story houses that had characterized Breezy Point, Queens, were gone, replaced by smoke and ashes. More Photos »

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Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Cars sat amid the burned rubble after the Breezy Point fire. At least 111 homes were destroyed and 20 more damaged, officials said, though no serious injuries were reported. More Photos »

By the morning, the fire in Breezy Point, Queens, stood as one of the worst in New York City’s history: whole acres of residential housing scorched as if leveled by a forest fire. At least 111 homes were destroyed and 20 more damaged, officials said, though no serious injuries were reported.

The Northeast was prepared for roiling floods, historic storm surges and locomotive winds, but few predicted that some of the worst destruction would come not from water but from fire. Flames tore through working-class enclaves in Queens and rows of mansions in Old Greenwich, Conn., and erupted in two dozen locations in the boroughs alone. Throughout the region, the storm was illuminated by showers of green and red sparks from burned-out transformers and skipping power lines.

“We expected a flood and we got a fire,” said Bill Valentine, a member of the Rockaway Point Fire Department.

If curtains of fire accompanied by rolling waves and pounding rain were not unlikely enough, there was this: the still-smoldering neighborhood of Breezy Point was home to scores of firefighters and police officers, many of whom had evacuated the area and were busy protecting people and property elsewhere in the city.

On Tuesday, the streets of tightly packed bungalows and two-story houses were gone, reduced to smoking ash by the flames. After the fire and the storm, longtime residents wandered about as if in a daze, holding maps of their once-familiar streets as they tried to determine whose house used to be where. With chimneys their only guides, they struggled to make sense of the jumble of charred timbers, ruined beach chairs and broken mailboxes.

“That was Fulton Walk, that was Ocean Avenue,” said a firefighter standing amid the wreckage. “They’re all gone.”

So, too, was a seafood restaurant in the Bronx; whole blocks in Belle Harbor, Queens; the home of Representative Bob Turner, a Queens congressman who lived in Breezy Point, and the home of Michael R. Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party.

A fire chief said that as he crossed the bridge driving to the Rockaways, he saw twin conflagrations lighting up the night sky, one in Breezy Point, another in Belle Harbor. “In my career I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve got 34 years on the job,” said Deputy Assistant Chief Jack Mooney, who arrived at Breezy Point at 3:30 a.m. as the blaze was still going strong. “Foundation after foundation after foundation — chimneys are all that’s standing.”

With more than 130 structures damaged or destroyed, the Breezy Point fire was among the worst residential fires in New York since the Fire Department was established in 1865, according to  Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, not in terms of dollars or deaths but in the sheer breadth of the devastation.

When it began Monday evening, local fire engines were responding to other fires, or helping to rescue stranded residents. By the time help arrived, the flooded streets had formed a chest-high moat around the flames, preventing trucks from even getting close. The heavy winds made things worse, creating a blowtorch effect that spread the fire widely.

Some firefighters, local volunteers working alongside city professionals, tried to approach the blaze from other angles to get the wind at their back; others used swift water boats, which struggled against the winds; others trudged through the floodwaters, equipment in tow.

“We couldn’t get them close to the fire,” said Michael Healey, a deputy chief with the Rockaway Point Fire Department. “We had to stretch hoses from two blocks away and draft the seawater, to spray onto the flames.”

Though only minor injuries were reported, officials cautioned that it would be days before the full damage was known. On City Island in the Bronx, a blaze gutted Tony’s Pier Restaurant, a popular seafood spot known for its fried shrimp and its steamers. No one was injured, but the three-alarm fire took 145 firefighters nearly four hours to bring under control, in large part because of downed trees and hurricane-force winds.

In Old Greenwich, where the Long Island Sound flooded the streets, heavy winds knocked firefighters to the ground as they battled without success to save three mansions that eventually burned.

The firefighters found themselves trapped — “There was nowhere for them to go because of the tide coming in and the waves coming in around them,” said Robert Kick, assistant chief of the Greenwich Fire Department. “There was an hour where we didn’t know if we were going to be able to get them out.”

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