A fire engulfed a large portion of Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach Saturday afternoon, shooting flames more than 10 feet high and creating plumes of thick black smoke that could be seen as far away as LaGuardia Airport, Manhattan and New Jersey.
The fire, which took more than 100 firefighters over two hours to bring under control, came to within 50 feet of homes on 161st Avenue and 83rd Street, causing panic among residents who are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy 17 months ago.
The fire broke out around 4:15 p.m. on Saturday around 161st Avenue and 78th Street in a section of parkland known as “the weeds.” It quickly engulfed several acres of brush, spreading east toward along 161st Avenue toward 83rd Street.
Firefighters lined trucks up along 83rd Street, creating a water barricade against the fast moving flames. They were helped somewhat by the light winds, which fire officials say were not a problem.
“The winds didn’t kick up the flames,” one FDNY official on the scene said. “What was the problem, the brush went up like a powder keg.”
The West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department also responded, sending a fire truck to assist in fighting the flames and two ambulances to stand by in case there were injuries, but none were reported. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The blaze caused some concern at JFK Airport, where passengers waiting for flights posted pictures of the smoke on their Twitter accounts, some concerned that it was a plane accident.
“What is going on at JFK?” Rich Pellosie asked on Twitter along with a photo of the smoke seen from Terminal 8.
Others posted pictures of the black smoke rising from as far away as Flushing Meadows Corona Park, LaGuardia Airport and Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.
Firefighters deployed special vehicles specifically used to combat brush fires to tackle the flames far into the park, which continued to pop up for two hours after the first fire was reported. The FDNY doused the last of the hot spots around 6:30 p.m.
Though fire officials say they didn’t believe any homes were in immediate danger, the fire reached to just within 50 feet of some homes across 83rd Street and 161st Avenue — too close for comfort for some residents.
One woman, who did not want to be named, surveyed the charred remains of the park as she walked her dog along 161st Avenue Saturday evening. A resident of 83rd Street, she praised firefighters for their work fighting the flames.
“The FDNY did their job, they saved our homes,” she said. “Now I have a clear view of the new World Trade Center from my living room.”
She also noted that the fire left the parkland so bare, it was possible to see Spring Creek from 83rd Street for the first time in her memory.
“I didn’t realize the water was that close,” she said.
Another resident noted the neighborhood had already taken several beatings from nature.
“When not underwater or on fire, Howard Beach is a great place to live,” said resident Christina Marullo, referencing the flooding the neighborhood suffered in Sandy.
Though brush fires in Spring Creek Park are common, Saturday’s was larger than many in the past. Several large fires in the park in 1999 burned several acres. Another large fire took place in 2005. A two-alarm blaze at 78th Street and 158th Avenue last March was deliberately set to cover up the murders of two men whose bodies were found there. The victims, both from Brooklyn, were allegedly murdered by a rival drug dealer.
Spring Creek Park is slated for a massive $50 million renovation and restoration to be spearheaded by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to remake the green space that separates the Rockwood Park, or “new” section, of Howard Beach from Jamaica Bay and Spring Creek.
Steve Zahn, DEC’s regional natural resources supervisor, said at a Community Board 10 meeting on Feb. 6 that the park suffers from an overgrowth of phragmites, which are vulnerable to fire, and the project would seek to fix that problem.