Hunter forest fire is contained but still burning, officials say

Above: A helicopter fights the Hunter Mountain fire on Saturday, May 9. Photo by Ariel Woolheater. 

Four days after it was sparked in a remote Greene County Valley, the largest forest fire to burn in the Catskills town of Hunter in living memory is fully contained, according to officials at the incident’s command post at the Lanesville firehouse at noon on Sunday, May 10.

The fire, based in the Greene County hamlet of Lanesville, is one of the largest of many that have sparked in the dry, hot Catskills this week, including a brush fire that consumed almost 3,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge and a burn at the Delaware County dump. 

A ban on brush burning is in effect until May 15, and all fires, including campfires, are banned in the Catskill Forest Preserve until that date. 

“We have the fire contained,” said New York State Forest Ranger Rob Dawson. “There’s a line all the way around it. However, we are patrolling the fire with two crews and we are still dealing with some smoke and hot areas.”

“We’re under good control,” said the John Farrell, the director of Greene County Emergency Services, who was also at the Lanesville firehouse on Sunday.

A team of firefighters and forest rangers contained the fire around dusk on Saturday, May 9, Dawson said.

The fixed-wing “Fire Boss” airplane, which doused the fire with water from the Schoharie Reservoir earlier this week, has been released from duty at the blaze, Dawson said. A helicopter was still dropping foam and water on the fire on Sunday, he said. Helicopters have been working the fire every day since it began on Thursday.

But the forest rangers, who are managing the fire, are concerned that high winds associated with a potential thunderstorm this week could kick up the fire and give it enough energy to jump the firebreaks surrounding it.

“It’s like your wood stove,” Dawson said. “If you provide more air to it, the fire’s going to increase. It’s all dependent on weather, and weather is so variable.”

110 acres burned

The fire, which started on Heavenly Valley Road near Route 214, has burned 110 acres and is still concentrated on the south slope of Hunter Mountain in the Greene County hamlet of Lanesville, Dawson said.

There have been numerous conflicting reports of number of acres that burned in the fire. Some estimates from official sources have been as high as 200 acres, others as low as 50 acres. The blaze is located on steep, rugged terrain in a remote valley in the town of Hunter where there is no cell phone reception, circumstances that added to confusion when the fire broke out on Thursday.

“It’s in some steep ledges, and is difficult to access,” Dawson said.

The fire initially posed some danger to several structures when it began, Dawson said, but later moved uphill into the forest and away from human habitation.

“Where it was down by the roadside, there were some structures, homes that were close by,” he said. “But there were some good firebreaks, and the fire followed the topography up, and that took it right in to the woods.”

Trails still closed

When asked how neighbors and civilians could help the firefighters and forest rangers working the fire this week, Dawson said that preventing new fires from sparking in the extremely dry, hot and fire-prone weather was paramount.

Hiking trails in the Hunter-West Kill Wilderness Area are closed due to the forest fire, and campfires are completely banned in the Catskill Park until May 14 to prevent more blazes. (The trails that are closed are the Devil’s Path Trail, the Diamond Notch Trail, Beckner Hollow Trail, Hunter Mountain Trail, Spruceton Trail and the Colonel’s Chair Trail.)

“The biggest way to help is to do no burning outside, and being safe with cigarettes and campfires so that we don’t have another one pop,” he said. “That is the biggest contribution.”

Seventeen fire companies fight blaze

During the first day of firefighting on Thursday, May 7, 17 fire companies responded to the blaze, Farrell said. On Friday, 60 firefighters spend the day bushwhacking up steep slopes on ATVs and on foot, and on Saturday, 12 firefighters were at the fire, he said.

In addition to the firefighters, 22 forest rangers responded to the fire overall, Dawson said, and on Sunday, there were 10 forest rangers and fire wardens working the blaze in Lanesville.

“It’s gone down. Initially, there was a ton of them,” Dawson said. “As we get more organized and see what’s going on with the fire, we provide more efficient resources for the job.”

Firefighters and forest rangers expect to be on duty in the Lanesville command post for at least several more days, depending on the weather, Dawson said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Dawson said, adding that he couldn’t comment or speculate on the topic. 

“Fire capital of the Catskills”

It’s unusual for such a large forest fire to burn in the lush, wet forests of the Greene County Catskills, Dawson said.

Brush fires are much more common further south, in Ulster and Sullivan counties, where the types of foliage are more flammable and where a massive brush fire burned close to 3,000 acres earlier this week, Dawson said.

But Hunter Mountain has a history of large forest fires, according to historian and forester Michael Kudish. In his book “The Catskill Forest: A History,” Kudish gives the town of Hunter the dubious distinction of being the “interior fire capital of the Catskills,” according to a Wikipedia synopsis of Kudish’s book. Kudish sees evidence of fire damage in the exact spot where this week’s fire began — on the Hunter side of Route 214 as is slopes upwards towards Stony Clove Notch. 

Still, firefighters who battled the Lanesville fire this week said that the blaze was the largest they’d seen in the area in living memory. Dawson agreed: “It’s been over 100 years since we’ve had a big fire over here.”

Read more updates on the fire by clicking here. 

Previous coverage

Large brush fire burns on Hunter Mountain -- Updates on the Hunter Mountain brush fire on May 7 and May 8, 2015

Correction: The photo at the top of this post was taken by Ariel Woolheater, not Douglas Senterman.