Close Call in Sagaponack Blaze

Firefighters dealt with a generator fire at a Sagaponack house on Monday afternoon. The Bridgehampton Fire Department was on the scene for three hours and called for help from East Hampton and Sag Harbor. Michael Heller/East Hampton Fire Department

A short circuit in underground electrical wires caused a brush fire and then a fire in a below-grade generator at a Sagaponack house on Monday afternoon, creating a dangerous situation for firefighters.

John Rankin, a Southampton Town fire marshal, said people at the house had noticed a small brush fire burning just down from the driveway and had used a dry chemical fire extinguisher to put out the flames. They then saw smoke coming from an area along the garage and called 911.

The Bridgehampton Fire Department was notified at 2:42 p.m. of the flames at 757 Daniel’s Lane, a flag lot off Town Line Road. The fire was found to be in a large generator 10 feet deep, underneath a platform supporting a basketball hoop, about 15 feet from the house between a garage and a common driveway.

Bridgehampton firefighters “had quite a time with it, trying to gain access to a generator pit to shut the emergency fuel supply off, which they were not able to do for quite some time,” Mr. Rankin said yesterday.

It was important to shut off the fuel supply because had the generator’s diesel fuel tank caught fire it could have burned for a long time, he said. The tank, which was mounted under the generator, had a capacity of 200 to 240 gallons.

In fact, said Mr. Rankin, two firefighters attempting to turn off the fuel supply had flames flash over their heads, a situation known to firefighters as a flashover. “They tried to put two guys into the generator pit to locate the emergency shutoff. Apparently they were delayed in coming out — I don’t want to say they were trapped — but it flashed, and the guys with the hose line were ready and poured water on them.”

No injuries were reported, but several firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide in their blood.

“I’m very happy nobody got hurt. Anytime we have a fire and we all make it back to the firehouse, and no one’s hurt, I’m thankful,” said Bridgehampton Fire Chief Gary Horsburgh. He said he had never seen a generator installed like that, adding that its location had caused the dangerous situation.

Mr. Rankin said the position of the generator and the emergency switch made it hard to get to. “A lot of times when these generators are purchased, they come pretty much as a complete unit,” he said, adding that there is ventilation that was provided for the vault. Despite the difficulties, he said his investigation indicated the installation of the generator was up to residential code. 

“Fighting fire is inherently dangerous. What you think should be is actually not what the code says,” the fire marshal said.

Representatives of G.T. Power Systems were eventually able to access the emergency shutoff. PSEG Long Island also responded, “relatively quickly,” Mr. Rankin said, to shut off power in the vicinity.

In the meantime, Bridgehampton called for help from the Sag Harbor and East Hampton fire departments. They responded with tankers, as there were no fire hydrants to supply water down the long driveway. East Hampton also brought a crash truck, which carries a foam fire suppressant to fight large-capacity fuel fires such as airplane crashes. Mr. Rankin said the idea was to fill the generator pit with foam if necessary.

The East Hampton Village Volunteer Ambulance Association also responded with one ambulance to stand by.

Mr. Rankin ruled the cause of the fire to be a short circuit in an electrical splice box mounted in the ground, which then backfed into the generator. According to the Southampton Town Tax Receiver’s office, the property is held in the name of a corporation, Copacabana Realty L.L.C. of Whitestone, N.Y.