A Tale of Two Fire Island Fires

Two fires, two communities, two outcomes. How were they the same and how were they different? Let’s compare the two major structure fires that took place on Fire Island this past summer of 2023.

Photo courtesy FIPFD.

299 Fire Island Boulevard, Fire Island Pines: “The property had three separate structures with multiple guest rooms,” wrote Fire Island Pines Fire Department Chief Joe Geiman when describing the residential structure fire that happened on the evening of Wednesday, August 23. “The fire was located in the southern most structure containing three separate sleeping areas. One bedroom, two bathrooms and an outside kitchen were fully [engulfed] and all were completely destroyed.”

Mutual aid was called in, which included Sayville, West Sayville, and Bayport from the mainland as well as multiple Fire Island departments responding. It took two fighting lines approximately 45 minutes to extinguish the blaze according to Geiman.

310-312 Bay Walk fire, September 7, 2023. Photo by Lisa Campbell, Netter Beach Estates.

310-312 Bay/Cottage Walk, Ocean Beach: Taking place two weeks after the Fire Island Pines incident, on Thursday afternoon of September 7, the Ocean Beach fire also involved mutual aid assistance from multiple departments including: Ocean Bay Park, Kismet, Saltaire, Fair Harbor, Point of Woods, Bay Shore, East Islip, and Town of Islip as well as arson investigators from Suffolk County. Unlike the Pines fire however, this one involved a commercial building that included two restaurants, a real estate office, an ice cream parlor, as well as several apartments on the second floor. The structure was not destroyed, but smoke and water damage was severe enough to shutter all businesses it housed until further notice and displace the occupants of the apartments – mostly seasonal workers employed with local establishments in the area.

OBFD point of origin footage as per the Fire Marshal reports of the 310-312 Bay Walk fire.

The Aftermath: The community of Ocean Beach swiftly mobilized and CJ’s Bar & Restaurant soon became a drop-off headquarters for clothing and toiletry donations for the occupants who lived above the businesses and lost everything. Emergency lodgings for them were located in short order. Within a month, Netter Beach Estates also relocated as the Ocean Beach Board of Trustees passed resolution to rent the realtor Village-owned space in an adjacent location across the street.

Less is known about the occupancy situation for the night in question at Fire Island Pines, except that no injuries were reported as a result of the incident.

The Reports:  The Ocean Beach Fire Department (OBFD) Field Incident Report released by the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach cites local business owner Jon Rondazzo and Ocean Beach resident Kevin Lowry as the owners of 310 Bay Walk*. Cause of the blaze was deemed accidental and cleared of any arson suspicion. Word on the street shortly after the incident was that the fire began with a large appliance, but the report indicates that it was actually a smoldering cigarette caught between the floorboards of an outdoor deck that was confirmed to be the cause, with a discarded appliance being in close proximity to the point of origin. Town of Islip fire marshal reports concur with these findings.

“That building has long been prone to automatic alarm calls,” said George Hesse in an interview with FIN. “This one was different. It did not come across as an automatic alarm, but a structure fire in progress.”

Hesse has been chief of the Ocean Beach Police Department since 2006 and was elected as chief of the OBFD as well earlier this year.

Records with Ocean Beach Village Justice Court indicate there were at least nine false fire alarm violations in 2021 which carried a fine of $250 each, as well as 10 additional smoke detection system violations on record in 2022 in which no fine penalties were charged. According to Rondazzo the structure was built in 1979 after its predecessor also succumbed to fire. A Special Permit Application on file with the Inc. Village of Ocean Beach confirms this date. Luckily, the present structure, while damaged is salvageable, and he vows to “build back and better than before.”

We also reached out to Town of Brookhaven seeking similar reports for the 299 Fire Island Boulevard fire.

“The official cause of the fire is undetermined. The ignition of the fire was related to an electric stove/oven that was located within a closet. The stove was used by the guests staying in the rooms on the property,” read an emailed statement quoting Town of Brookhaven Fire Marshal Christopher Merman.

The Town of Brookhaven has always been cooperative in furnishing this publication with verbal statements and documentation when incidents under their jurisdiction arise – including the fire that destroyed Cherry Grove Hotel and additional structures in 2015, Brookhaven fire marshal’s condemnation of the Ice Palace Nightclub in 2019, followed by their condemnation of Fire Island Beach House in 2021, and the subsequent Hotel Fire Island Pines earlier this year – which is why we were perplexed by the cryptic and odd wording of this three sentence response. We contacted Town of Brookhaven multiple times for further elaboration on this statement, but have received none to date.

Some Findings: An online search revealed that 299 Fire Island Boulevard was not just any residence in Fire Island Pines. It was designed by Horace Gifford (1932-1992), who is considered to be among one of the most celebrated architects active on Fire Island during the post-war era.

It is not the first Gifford structure to be lost to fire on Fire Island.

“Two other Horace Gifford homes have been struck by fire in recent years,” wrote Architect/ Historian Christopher Rawlins, author of “Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.”

“461-3 Fire Island Boulevard – an addition to a 1950’s home that Gifford completed in 1973 – burned down on September 29, 2013. On September 16, 2019, I was hosting two architecture students at my home in the Pines when they began banging on my bedroom door in the early morning. We ascended to my roof deck and watched 637 Fire Island Boulevard turn into a horrific inferno. There is nothing intrinsic to Gifford homes that make them susceptible to this fate, except for the fact that aging homes can have aging wiring. And any wood home out here is vulnerable.”

Rawlins admitted he was less familiar with 299 Fire Island Boulevard in a telephone interview, because there was minimal documentation about it in Gifford’s archives. However, he knew it well enough to confirm it was a genuine Horace Gifford house.

According to a website called Property IQ, 299 Fire Island Boulevard was constructed in 1963 and is described as a 1,488 square-foot living space with five bedrooms and two baths.

“MOD 8” screenshot of one of the Airbnb listings for 299 Fire Island Boulevard.

Our online search pointed us to a gentleman named Glenn Hanna as the present owner. He maintains a website called “modernistinthepines,” which showcases 299 Fire Island Boulevard in which he rented rooms through the vacation rental company, Airbnb.

Hanna’s listings on Airbnb as well as other Fire Island Pines area realtors were live on the internet through late November of 2023 citing prices like $140, $157, $180, and $187 a night for various rooms as well as the master house which quoted availability at $599 a night. His website was still online at the time of this article publication, with eight rooms listed under Modernist in the Pines, mentioning that some rooms were undergoing renovation.

Hanna has not responded to our attempts to contact him for comment. He described himself on his Airbnb profile as having “studied Architecture [and] practiced high end interior design before becoming an innkeeper. [And] loving it.” His Facebook profile says he grew up in Northport and attended Pratt Institute. He referred to his Fire Island Pines accommodations offered as “rustic,” and makes it clear that it is a guest house, not a luxury hotel, which contains shared common spaces. The listings also indicated that no smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were available in most of the offered spaces.

Without Hanna or Town of Brookhaven’s input, how the division of “sleeping areas” pictured on his website and mentioned in FIPFD Chief Geiman’s report came to be is inconclusive.

Decisions: Short-term rental laws in Town of Brookhaven came under scrutiny last spring when the Town Board attempted to revise town code to set a 28-day minimum on home rentals. The proposed legislation was unpopular with a vocal sector of the Brookhaven Town residency to the extent that a petition was circulated on Change.org. One of the sticking points was that Fire Island communities within Brookhaven’s jurisdiction like the Pines were exempt from the 28-day rule. The vote was tabled by the Town Board on May 4, 2023.

The Brookhaven proposed legislation also met opposition due to rental registration procedures that included applicants submit to premises inspections by the town building department with Town expenses to be covered by corresponding permit fees.

The Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach once had rental permit legislation similar to the Brookhaven proposal in place throughout the early 2000s, but made significant amendments to it in 2010 after a village resident filed litigation contesting the constitutionality of the imposed inspections and fee rate scale.

“Homeowners are still required to obtain rental permits, but now they self-certify their own premises,” said Hesse. Ocean Beach Village Attorney Kenneth Gray confirmed his statement. 

A savings for entrepreneur home owners that rent their properties on Fire Island for sure, but one less tool in the arsenal for municipalities to assure such rentals and the communities they govern are safe.

Editor’s Notes*

• Kevin Lowry is a columnist/reporter with Fire Island News.

• Jon Rondazzo partners with another investor that purchased CJ’s Restaurant & Bar as well as The Palms Hotel from the owners of this publication.