Black Saturday - April 20, 1963 - Staten Island Brush Fires

mack

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Easter Saturday 1963 - high winds/dry weather/low water pressure - numerous multiple alarm brush fires burned out of control across Staten Island.  I was a kid and was evacuated 3 times from different neighborhoods.  Most SI neighborhoods were surrounded by large tracts of heavily wooded areas which made stopping the numerous fires impossible.  Heavy smoke was everywhere. Sirens all day, all night.  I saw engine companies from Jersey City, I believe the first time FDNY ever requested mutual aid from outside the city to fight a fire.  Hundreds of SI homes burned to the ground as sections of SI lost water.  My father worked that day in an engine company.  They operated continuously without relief into the next day.  Off duty firemen drove to empty firehouses, grabbed hose lengths, nozzles, Indian pumps, brooms - and operated on their own.  Companies from all over the city did the best they could, driven from block to block as hydrants ran dry.  The SI newspaper headline for the day was "Even the Firemen Cried" as pictures were taken of firemen watching helplessly as homes exploded into flames in front of them.

http://www.silive.com/specialreports/index.ssf/2011/03/firefighters_watch_helplessly.html

 

johnd248

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I believe I wrote about this day once before.  Due to the numerous fires in Staten Island, E 248, along with many other companies throughout the city, was relocated to SI.  They only got 2 1/2 blocks from quarters and gave a verbal for smoke from a cellar of a 6 story brick OMD at Church and Ocean Avenues.  That incident became 77-55-1543.  I helped out the brothers there and then went to an even bigger fire at Linden Blvd and Rockaway Avenue ( Boro Call at Box 2125).  The company never made it over to SI that day.
 

mack

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Most of the summaries of April 20, 1963 indicate that there were about a thousand fires in the city that day, including the SI brush fires. Johnd248 mentions the 5th alarm in Brooklyn.  Saten Island had three 5th alarm-level fires burning at the same time - Rossville, Tottenville and the West Shore.  The two South Shore fires converged.  There was no VN bridge to Brooklyn yet for SI relocations. 

The story goes that the 23 Battalion tried to keep in front of the Tottenville fire, moving constantly as the fire jumped roads and burned homes, garages and buildings.  The Tottenville fire moved rapidly from Paige Avenue in Tottenville to Princes Bay with 30 MPH winds. 

The mutual aid was request to Jersey City FD was the first in FDNY history, as reported in most accounts.  I saw a convoy of 6 or 8 red open-cab Jersey City Seagrave pumpers like this one:

(could not find actual JCFD pumpers)

Brooklyn and Manhattan companies had to take the ferries and then Hylan Blvd, Victory Blvd, Richmond Avenue or Amboy Road to reach SI fires.  Many SI streets back then were unmarked - no street signs.  There were many overgrown streets, dirt roads, dummy boxes - and many relocated companies did not have SI maps. 

Even though April 20th was the worst day, with three simultaneous 5th alarm fires (they would have all been greater alarms if any units were available to respond) as well as many additional multiples on SI alone, the SI brush fire problem ran a full week (Easter week 1963).  There were many multples for SI brush fires in that one week. 
 

nfd2004

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Thank you very much. These are stories in themselves. I guess you could just say that "the FDNY has certainly had their busy moments".
 

johnd248

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I remember, during the Boro Call at Linden and Rockaway, Brooklyn was so stripped the dispatcher asked:" Is any engine available in Brooklyn?"  The only unit to answer was E 215 all the way north in Greenpoint and they were told to respond to Linden and Rockaway.  How's that for a long run riding the back step?
 

grumpy grizzly

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Please bear with the Grump. This post really interested me, I had posted on the numerous multiples that day. I did a search for "FDNY brush fires 1963" and came up with a great site. It is NYCFirenet/files.  It is about halfway down the page. I beleive the info posted is from the firebell club. Lots and lots of info, re-locations, other calls.. I will try to get the complete site.
 

grumpy grizzly

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2 days later and a dollar short, Mack was dead on. Jack's book on the SP was dead on.  That is why FDNY had the SP.
 

grumpy grizzly

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What caused all these brush fires???????I know it was an extremely dry season but there has to be an ignition source.
 

mack

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Grump - Kids started most of these fires. 

The factors which made this week in April 1963 particularly vulnerable:  the previous fall was wet and many of the expected smaller brush fires did not happen - there was a lot of brush to burn; a prolonged Spring drought - everything was dry; a period of great weather - everyone was outdoors;  Easter/Passover week - kids had time off from school;  several days with high winds; SI had experienced a lot of growth in anticipation of the VN Bridge being built - many new homes were built in the middle of wooded areas; recent population growth - a lot of kids; extra population demands on an inadequate water supply system; no highway system - the Expressways had not been built; no VN Bridge to bring in companies rapidly - had to rely on long ferry rides or long routes through NJ; limited SI fire units - only E 165, E 166, L 85, L 86 had been added in the past 30 years while the population tripled; no FDNY brush fire units yet.

But it was mainly the kids who were responsible.  They actually caught some of the kids who started the major fires. 
 

mack

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Actual totals of SI brush fires, April 21-April 28 1963 (source WNYF):

Date      SI Brush Fires    SI Multiple Alarm Brush Fires
4/21              39                        4
4/22              27                        4
4/23              94                      11
4/24              72                        5
4/25              64                      16
4/26              54                        4
4/27              51                        2
4/28              34                        5

Totals          435                      51

Note - these totals were for SI brush fires only.
 
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