Bright orange flames and heavy smoke billowing up from a shuttered Commack motel on Saturday morning alarmed motorists and nearby residents who were unaware it was part of a preplanned fire training drill.
Commack Fire Department burned down the former Courtesy Inn, located at 1126 Jericho Turnpike, Jan. 12 with the property owner’s permission as the culmination of a two-week long intensive training exercise, Commissioner Pat Fazio said. The site needed to be cleared to make way for an approved 94-apartment complex for seniors age 55 and older. The location is being developed by TDG Commack, LLC.
Residents dialed 911 and called local officials in a panic over the blaze, saying they were not
given any notification.
‘It was a huge fire and a huge mess.’
— Mark Stevens
“The community is incensed over it as they weren’t informed and there was a huge amount of smoke blowing over their houses,” Mark Stevens, of East Northport, said. “It was a huge fire and a huge mess.”
Stevens, who took photos of the blaze from a distance, said the distraction of the flames, along with heavy smoke, caused traffic to back up along Jericho Turnpike.
The fire department did not publish any notification to residents, according to the commissioner, because the event was well planned and controlled.
“It was a controlled burn at all times,” Fazio said. “No one was ever in danger. There was no danger to anyone’s home.”
The commissioner said fire department officials spoke with the property owners after the motel closed in November 2018 about razing the blighted building for training purposes. The property and vacated building, which he said has been blighted by drug issues and overdoses, offered its firefighters a unique learning experience.
“Training like this is priceless,” Fazio said. “Often with fire education, we don’t get a lot of working fires.”
He said the fire department utilized each of the 50 hotel rooms to set up a wide variety of different training scenarios. Over two weeks, volunteers learned forced entry training on locked doors to get into a fire, how to safely breech walls to get to a fire or trapped individual, and observe how fires reacted in different environments.
During the week prior to the fire, Fazio said various state and federal agencies utilized the structure as well to train their personnel. Neighboring fire departments including Nesconset, Smithtown and St. James were on hand to participate in the Jan. 12 large-scale fire drill.
“This is the biggest live training we’ve ever had,” he said. “No one was at risk, we did it with no injuries. It was a total success.”
‘Training like this is priceless. Often with fire education, we don’t get a lot of working fires.’
— Pat Fazio
The commissioner said he was under the impression the Town of Smithtown was notifying residents through its website and computer systems. Nicole Garguilo, the town’s spokeswoman, said the town had no advanced notification but the fire department was not required to do so.
“They’ve never been asked to notify us before,” Garguilo said. “Usually their controlled burns are done in buildings further away from the community. This was a building surrounded by a residential neighborhood.”
The town’s Department of Public Safety sent an alert out via Twitter and its mobile app at 10:44 a.m., after the burn had started.
“We have reached out to their communications contact and asked if they would notify us in advanced of controlled burns in the future,” Garguilo said.
Fazio said the fire department also did not publish notification for fear of people attempting to come onto the site, resulting in a live audience that could potentially get injured.
“I apologize people are so upset,” he said. “It was invaluable training that we’re not offered that much.”