(Updated Sep. 1, 8pm ET) New York State governor Kathy Hochul changed her schedule to be able to arrive in Ellenville Thursday afternoon, September 1 and get a first-hand look at the approximately 270-acre Napanoch Point fire. The governor, along with county executive Pat Ryan, DEC commissioner Basil Seggos, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation commissioner Erik Kulleseid, and others to provide a series of updates on the state of the fire.
“This is truly an international response to a crisis,” said Hochul, pointing to the 20 firefighters from Quebec dressed in red who had come to lend their hands in battling the fire in a remote section of the 26,000-acre Minnewaska State Park. The fire was caused by a lightning strike on August 29.
“What is it with your county?” Hochul grumbled to Ryan, who had recently won a special election fill Anthony Delgado’s position as congressman to the region. “I’m spending every weekend up here in the winter, and now again?” she asked, referring to “ice storms, power outages, hurricanes, and now a wildfire!”
The governor said that the situation was a direct result of climate change. “We’re the first generation to suffer from the consequences of man’s assault on Mother Nature for decades,” she said, “but we’re also the last generation to be able to stop it!”
Hochul said that in her short time as governor she has had to respond to more hurricanes than Florida. “We’ve had multiple 100-year floods, hurricanes that caused people to die in their cars and their homes,” she conrinued. “Usually at this time of year we’re sending people out west to help fight the large forest fires because of climate change, and now, we’re asking them to come help us.”
Governor says 20 percent contained
She commended Ryan for Ulster County’s response to the wildfire. and said that “we’re blessed to have Commissioner Seggos leading the DEC for New York but also right here, on the ground, helping to orchestrate the response to this fire.”
Hochul commiserated with parks commissioner Kulleseid, “As I imagine, this is heartbreaking for you and your staff and the people that love this park. Every tree lost is a loss of life. This is not what we expected for a holiday weekend, but I want to thank all of your for being here, to the firefighters and first responders who came because your county and your state needed you. Thank you.”
Using a blown-up topographical map of the western section of the park, Hochul, who had recently flown over the blaze, reported that “the fire went from 75 acres up to 270 acres and now it’s scaled back again.”
Tuesday night’s two inches of rain had helped buy the firefighters some time, “but it didn’t put the fire out.” She said that about 20 percent of the fire was now contained, and believes that “the DEC predicts it will burn itself out, and they don’t expect it to threaten any lives or structures.”
Exceptionally dry conditions
DEC commissioner Seggos said that the fire kept fluctuating. “Right now, it’s gone down in size from 270 acres to about 160 acres, but it’s constantly changing,” he said.“These are not good conditions for wildfires. It’s exceptionally dry, it’s windy and we’re grateful to the governor for providing us with every resource we needed from day one.”
Two State Police Blackhawk helicopters and the DEC’s helicopters have dropped almost 30,000 gallons of water onto the fire, dragging buckets into Lake Awosting and then having a forest ranger target the drop onto the blaze.
Under the direction of the incident commander Robbi Mecus, a DEC forest ranger, the firefighters on the ground have worked ro create a break line around the perimeter of the fire, digging deep enough into the ground to get past the roots and into mineral soil and bedrock. As the terrain is too steep and rugged for vehicle access of any kind, they have often had to work by hand.
“We first went in directly to the fire and tried to hand cut lines around the fire to stop it, but it was too intense and dangerous for the firefighters to be that close to it,” said Mecus. “They then pulled back and are in the process of creating a box-shaped break line around the fire, some with bulldozers where they can gain access, and other areas by hand. We’re digging down deep,” she explained. “Imagine a house fire and if the firefighters could cut the house in half, removing the burning section from the non-burning section and separating them. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Once the outer fire line is completed, Mecus said that they will move back in to “attack the fire directly.”
Park closed on Labor Day
Kulleseid thanked Eric Humphries, director of Minnewaska State Park, and his staff fpr their exceptional work. “We will not be open for Labor Day,” announced Humphries. “I know people love to enjoy the park on this holiday weekend but I encourage you to find other nearby parks and new adventures.”
When did he believe the park will be reopened? “As soon as the fire is put out, we’re opening right back up,” he replied.
“This park holds a special place in many people’s hearts,” said county executive Ryan, a Gardiner resident said. “It does on mine. I grew up running and hiking in this park as a scrawny high-school cross-country student. I can imagine how hard this is on people who love this park and have similar attachments to it, and have brought their kids hiking and swimming in it. We’re doing everything we can to get the fire under control.”
Ryan’s biggest takeaway was gratitude for the firefighters. He thanked everyone. “What touched my heart has been the outpouring of support from people who want to help and make sure that the firefighters have enough water and food,” he said. “They’re in some rugged territory here, and it’s hot and they’re soot-filled and dirty, and they’re the ones out there working day and night to contain this fire.”
Seggos noted that Gunks forest ecology is fire-dependent, meaning it thrives off fire to propagate and regenerate. With its proximity to populated places, however, it has to be contained. “You don’t see fire coming off the mountain right now, but I was just out there with Robbie, and it’s smoldering and hot and still going,” he said. “You’ll likely see flames tonight when the sun starts to set and the ground heats up.”
The governor’s press conference took place at the incident command center on Berme Road in Ellenville.