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Big Chief School and Camp bounces back after fire

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When campers returned to Big Chief School and Camp in East Meadow two days after a fire engulfed its main building, they found it in a state of partial reconstruction, but appearing unscathed.

The interior of the building, on North Jerusalem Road, is undergoing major repairs, and the windows were all destroyed in the blaze on July 24. The following day, however, owner Luanne Picinich and Lauren Moran, the camp’s headmaster, had the window frames boarded up with planks of wood on which Picinich’s daughter Zhenya painted garden landscapes.

“We wanted to make it look happy again for the kids to come on Friday,” Picinich said, adding that there is ample space on the property for the camp to continue activities without using the main building.

Eight fire departments responded to the scene after the fire was reported at 11:22 a.m., and North Bellmore Fire Chief Brendan Narell said it was dealt with quickly.

“The fire was in the rear [of the camp] and contained to the one building,” he said.

There were no injured campers or fire personnel, Narell added, and everyone in the camp was evacuated in under three minutes.

“The community’s been wonderful,” said Luanne Picinich. “Yes, we had a fire. But there was nothing to it . . . Not one child cried, and when their parents picked them up, they said they weren’t scared.”

Big Chief practices fire safety regularly, and in a drill just a week before the fire, campers were taught to evacuate the building, wait outside for further instructions and remain calm. Picinich said that on July 24, “something didn’t smell right” and the staff ran another drill, but “we knew it was going to be something more serious.”

After evacuating the building and calling the East Meadow Fire Department, Picinich called St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church, which is a five-minute walk down the street, and its management immediately agreed to house the campers. The church gave them food and water, while Big Chief staff used it as a command center, Picinich said, and notified all parents what was happening.

“It was all about taking care of the children,” she said, adding that many of them were not even aware that there was an emergency, and returned last Friday to resume activities.

Adjacent to the building that caught fire is the camp’s original building, which Picinich’s parents bought in 1954, before a surge in enrollment prompted the need to expand. Joseph Picinich, a first-generation Italian immigrant, and Ruth Eleanor Picinich, a Brooklyn native, raised Picinich there, and when she turned 18, she joined them in running its operations.

Each summer the camp accepts children ages 3 to 13, and from September through June it’s also a pre-school.

Behind the buildings there are two playgrounds, three swimming pools, a schoolhouse and a garden where campers harvest their own vegetables, fruit and lettuce for salads. There’s also a small farm, where children help raise chickens, ducks, a goat named Lilly and a turkey named Tilly. Picinich said that Tilly must have either innate foresight or a strong sense of smell, because on the day of the fire she suddenly ran toward one of the pools, clucking loudly.

Picinich wrote a post on Big Chief’s Facebook page later that day, letting parents know what would be happening moving forward. The following day, it received 87 comments and nine shares, all of which were in support of the camp.

“Thank goodness everyone is safe,” wrote one commenter. “. . . Buildings can be rebuilt. You, your staff [and] all of the children you take care of every day are all safe. If there is anything I can do to help you, [please] let me know.”

Picinich said she was grateful for the kindness shown by the community — and the quick response by local emergency services. Fire departments from Bellmore, East Meadow, Levittown, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Merrick, Uniondale and Wantagh responded to the scene.

Members of the Bellmore-Merrick Emergency Medical Services unit were also on standby.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Nassau County fire marshal’s office.