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Fire Island is the large center island of the outer barrier islands parallel to the south shore of Long Island, New York. Occasionally, the name is used to refer collectively to not only the central island, but also Long Beach Barrier Island, Jones Beach Island, and Westhampton Island, since the straits which separate these islands are ephemeral. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy once again divided Fire Island into two islands. Together, these two islands are approximately 31 miles (50 km) long and vary between 520 and 1,310 feet (160 and 400 m) wide. Fire Island is part of Suffolk County. It lies within the towns of Babylon, Islip, and Brookhaven, containing two villages and a number of hamlets. All parts of the island not within village limits are part of the Fire Island census-designated place (CDP), which had a permanent population of 292 at the 2010 census, though that expands to thousands of residents and tourists during the summer months.
The land area of Fire Island is 9.6 square miles (24.9 km2).
Fire Island lies on average 5.5 miles (8.9 km) off the south shore of Long Island, but nearly touches it along the east end. It is separated from Long Island by Great South Bay, which spans interconnected bays along Long Island: Patchogue Bay, Bellport Bay, Narrow Bay, and Moriches Bay. The island is accessible by automobile near each end: via Robert Moses Causeway on its western end, and by William Floyd Parkway (Suffolk County Road 46) near its eastern end. Cross-bay ferries connect to over 10 points in between. Motor vehicles are not permitted on the rest of the island, except for utility, construction and emergency access and with limited beach-driving permits in winter. The island and its resort towns are accessible by boat, seaplane and a number of ferries, which depart from Patchogue, Bay Shore and Sayville.
The Fire Island Inlet grew to 9 miles (14 km) in width before receding. The Fire Island Lighthouse was built in 1858, right on the inlet, but Fire Island's western terminus at Democrat Point has steadily moved west so that the lighthouse today is 6 miles (10 km) from the inlet.
Fire Island separated from Southampton in a 1931 Nor'easter when Moriches Inlet broke through. Moriches Inlet and efforts by local communities east of Fire Island to protect their beach front with jetties have led to an interruption in the longshore drift of sand going from east to west and is blamed for erosion of the Fire Island beachfront. Between these major breaks there have been reports over the years of at least six inlets that broke through the island but have since disappeared.
A 2009 beach renourishment program was credited with saving the island from the full effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
In the winter and spring of 2009, a beach renourishment project was undertaken on Fire Island, with the cooperation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Towns of Brookhaven and Islip, and Fire Island residents. The renourishment program involved dredging sand from an offshore borrow area, pumping it onto the beach and shaping the sand into an approved beach face and dune template in front of the communities of Corneille Estates, Davis Park, Dunewood, Fair Harbor, Fire Island Pines, Fire Island Summer Club, Lonelyville, Ocean Bay Park, Ocean Beach, Saltaire, and Seaview. Fire Islanders agreed to a significant property tax increase to help pay for the project, which was estimated to cost between $23 and $25 million ($6,020 per housing unit), including the cost of environmental monitoring, and was expected to add 1,400,000 cubic meters (1,800,000 cubic yards) of sand in front of the participating communities. The Towns of Brookhaven and Islip, in which the communities are located, issued bonds to pay for the project, backed by the new taxes levied by community Erosion Control Taxing Districts.
The island was heavily damaged in the high tides associated with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 including three breaches around Smith Point County Park on the sparsely populated east end of the island. The biggest breach (and politically most difficult one to deal with because it is in a wilderness area) is at Old Inlet in the Otis Pike Wilderness Area just west of Smith Point County Park. Old Inlet is at the site of previous breaches (which have come and gone on their own) was 108 feet wide after the storm on the south end and 1,171 feet on February 28, 2013. Officials have been debating whether to close the breach and let nature take its course as it has been flushing out the Great South Bay. However residents of the bay front communities have noted increased flooding since the storm. Officials have moved to close the other two breaches which are on either side of Moriches Inlet—one in Cupsogue County Park and the other one being in Smith Point County Park.
Reports indicated that 80 percent of the homes particularly those on the east end were flooded and 90 homes were completely destroyed. The storm also tore away about 75 feet of the dune coastline. But Fire Island was not hit as hard as other areas and most of the 4,500 homes on the island survived even if damaged. Officials credited the dune replenishment program with helping to spare the island.
The origin of Fire Island's name is not certain. It is believed its Native American name was Sictem Hackey, which translated to "Land of the Secatogues". The Secatogues were a tribe in the area of the current town of Islip. It was part of what was also called the "Seal Islands".
The name of Fire Island first appeared on a deed in 1789.
Historian Richard Bayles suggested that the name derives from a misinterpretation or corruption of the Dutch word vijf ("five"), or in another version vier ("four"), referring to the number of islands near the Fire Island inlet. At times histories have referred to it in the plural, as "Fire Islands", because of the inlet breaks.
Other versions say the island derived its name from fires built on the sea's edge by Native Americans or by pirates to lure unsuspecting ships into the sandbars. Some say it is how portions of the island look to be on fire from sea in autumn. Yet another version says it comes from the rash caused by poison ivy on the island.
While the western portion of the island was referred to as Fire Island for many years, the eastern portion was referred to as Great South Beach until 1920, when widespread development caused the whole land mass to be called Fire Island.
William "Tangier" Smith held title to the entire island in the 17th century, under a royal patent from Thomas Dongan. The remnants of Smith's Manor of St. George are open to the public in Shirley, New York.
Except for the western 4 1⁄2 miles (7.2 km) of the island, the island is protected as part of Fire Island National Seashore. Robert Moses State Park, occupying the remaining western portion of the island, is one of the popular recreational destinations in the New York City area. The Fire Island Light stands just east of Robert Moses State Park.
Fire Island is a very seasonal area. Housing is mostly stick-built bungalow-style with generous helpings of bamboo. Some are beachfront, built on the dunes of the Atlantic Ocean, while others are on boardwalks or concrete walks, like a miniaturized city. There are few residents in winter months, but the population explodes towards the end of spring. The lifestyle is very casual and friendly, with Ocean Beach as the main destination for tourists and day trippers. Year-round residents can find schools, churches, shops and even a school bus service to Long Island via an off-road modified school bus.
The quiet villages on Fire Island provide solitude, while the larger towns like Ocean Beach and Cherry Grove provide a more social atmosphere with clubs, bars and open air dining. Two of these hamlets, Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, are popular destinations for LGBT vacationers.
The incorporated villages of Ocean Beach and Saltaire within Fire Island National Seashore are car-free during the summer tourist season (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and permit only pedestrian and bicycle traffic (during certain hours only in Ocean Beach). For off-season use, there are a limited number of driving permits for year-round residents and contractors. The hamlet of Davis Park allows no vehicles or bicycles year-round.
Beach erosion, largely due to construction of jetties at the Moriches Inlet, opened naturally by a storm in 1931 and widened September 21, 1938, is described in a report on the geological effects of the Hurricane of 1938.
Fire Island's unique location and constantly changing geography play a major role in the protection of its citizens. Although it is served by ten fire departments and two police departments, the seasonal residency and remote driving distance are a challenge to the public safety community. Because there are no roads on inhabited Fire Island, fire department vehicles are heavily modified four-wheel drive with suspension lifts, large diameter off-road tires and recovery equipment, which allow them to traverse the sometimes washed-out, loose sand.
Until 1986, there was no ambulance service on Fire Island, prompting the village of Saltaire to form its rescue company, later followed by Ocean Beach, and then in the 2000s with Fair Harbor. Due to relatively close distances, fire departments on Fire Island are obliged to provide mutual aid both ways. Some coastal fire departments on Long Island have fully equipped marine rescue and fire boat units, and also rely on the Suffolk County Marine Bureau.
Fire Island's corps of off-road-capable fire apparatus and the firefighters' training to use them effectively provide much-needed support in the event of a wildfire, as was illustrated in the Long Island Central Pine Barrens fires of 1995.
The Suffolk County Police Department Marine Bureau is the primary law enforcement agency. Ocean Beach also has a dedicated police department of its own. Criminal proceedings are handled by Suffolk District Court and subjects that are arrested will go to the 3rd, 1st or 5th precinct, or to one of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office-run jails. Small claims and property matters are usually handled by the individual village of case origin. It is common practice for police to write tickets then send unruly visitors off the island via water taxi, at the offender's expense.
The Suffolk County Park Police and New York State Park Police patrol the Robert Moses State Park, while the National Park Service is stationed at the Fire Island Light and Fire Island National Seashore.
The United States Coast Guard has a base on Fire Island and provides aerial and nautical patrols to the Fire Island National Seashore as well as all beaches in the area. One of the oldest Coast Guard stations in America, Station #25 has been in uninterrupted operation since 1849.
As of the census of 2000, there were 491 people, 138 households, and 77 families residing on Fire Island. The population density was 52.82/mi2 (21.82/km2). There were 4,153 housing units, at an average density of 478.1/mi2 (184.6/km2). The racial makeup of the town was 96.77% White, 0.65% Asian, 0.32% Pacific Islander, 0.65% from other races, and 1.61% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.90% of the population.
There were 138 households on Fire Island, out of which 25.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.6% were married couples living together, 2.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 44.2% were non-families. 34.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.20 and the average family size was 2.90.
Fire Island's population was spread out with 20.6% under the age of 18, 6.5% from 18 to 24, 29.0% from 25 to 44, 33.5% from 45 to 64, and 10.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42 years. For every 100 females there were 133.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 143.6 males.
The median income for a household on Fire Island was $73,281, and the median income for a family was $83,672. Males had a median income of $46,875 versus $41,429 for females. The per capita income for Fire Island was $43,681. 0.0% of families and 3.1% of individuals were below the poverty line, including 0.0% of those under age 18 and 8.6% of those age 65 or over.
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An early mention of Fire Island is in the dialogue of 1948 film noir I Walk Alone.
Season 1 episode 23 of Naked City is titled "Fire Island" and is about a group of moonshiners who move into a cabin in order to spend the winter distilling liquor.
On Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, gay jokes were often prefaced by "On Fire Island". Specific references to homosexuality were rarely permitted by network standards at the time.
Frank Perry's Last Summer (1969), adapted by Eleanor Perry from Evan Hunter's novel about a summer of sexual discovery on Fire Island, brought an Oscar nomination for actress Catherine Burns. The American writer Patricia Nell Warren, known as "the mother of Frontrunners" — the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender running/walking clubs — locates parts of her 1974 best-selling novel The Front Runner, as well as of Harlan's Race, a 1994 sequel, on Fire Island.
Stock film footage of the lighthouse on Fire Island was used as part of two of the opening sequences of the CBS soap opera Guiding Light. The first sequence, showing the lighthouse with a blue sky, was used from January 1970 to spring 1974; the second sequence, showing the lighthouse with an orange sky, was used from spring 1974 to November 1975.
The song "Come to Me" has been described as "the definitive Fire Island dance classic" because of the legendary beach concert performance by the 16-year-old France Joli before an oceanfront Fire Island audience of 5000 on July 7, 1979. When Donna Summer cancelled at the last minute, Joli stepped in as a replacement and became an overnight sensation. The song "Gay Messiah" on the 2004 album Want Two by Rufus Wainwright makes a reference to the popularity of Fire Island for gay and lesbian tourists, remarking that when the "gay messiah" comes, "He will fall from the star / of Studio 54 / and appear on the sand / of Fire Island's shore". The 2003 album Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne featured the song "Fire Island" about two siblings' home-alone shenanigans while their parents vacation on the island.
When Ocean Meets Sky, a 2003 documentary detailing the 50-year history of the Fire Island Pines community, had its television premiere on June 10, 2006. The film includes much previously unseen archival footage. The mockumentary Beach Comber was filmed on Fire Island in 2004. ABC's reality show One Ocean View (2006) was shot on Fire Island. Fire Island is also the setting of Terrence McNally's play Lips Together, Teeth Apart.
The Village People included a song titled "Fire Island" on their 1977 debut album, Village People. In the song, they refer to the island as "a funky weekend" and mention several locations on the island such as the Ice Palace, the Monster, the Blue Whale, and the Sandpiper. The song also includes the warning "Don't go in the bushes" because "someone might grab ya" or "someone might stab ya."
Fire Island is featured prominently in Ann Brashares's 2008 novel The Last Summer (of You and Me), about two sisters and a friend who grow up together, vacationing on the island every summer. Fire Island serves dual meanings as both a vacation destination and a homoerotic euphemism in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. In the story "Blood Work," Sedaris describes an instance in which he is mistaken for an erotic housekeeper and his would-be john makes frequent and emphatic mention of FIRE ISLAND as a secret code. Fire Island is the location of Burt Hirschfeld's best-selling novel Fire Island. It is the story of some show-business and television people who spend their summers with their families on the island.
Robert Kelsos in the NBC series Scrubs has a son called Harrison that opened a store on Fire Island called Everything Mesh.
Fire Island is repeatedly referenced on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace. Many references are made to the adventures had by Will Truman and Jack McFarland during their vacations there; the impression given in the references is that gay people are welcome and there is a loosening of one's inhibitions when there. On the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, the island is referenced by Devon Banks (Will Arnett), a young gay executive who flirts with a gay shop employee and plans to rendezvous with him later on Fire Island. In season four, a charge read at a hearing states "in 2007, a [corporate] officer [Banks] used corporate funds to throw a Cabaret-themed Halloween party on Fire Island."
In the 2002 film Men in Black II, the lighthouse on Fire Island was used to depict a Massachusetts post office where Tommy Lee Jones' character Kevin Brown was working after leaving MIB in the first film.
Following are the locations on the island. Townships listed from west to east, communities alphabetically.
The following are associated islands in the Fire Island National Seashore Jurisdiction, from west to east:
After the Manhattan theater community began staying on Fire Island during the 1920s, the island had numerous summer celebrity residents.
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