Weather Conditions Key to Containing Wildfire in Southern N.J.

May 17, 2007

Weather conditions that helped spread a massive forest fire were being counted on Wednesday to help douse it as a strong storm was expected to roll through southern New Jersey later in the day.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burned about 13,500 acres, almost 20 square miles, of brush and pine forest in southern New Jersey.

Dry conditions and strong winds helped fan the blaze, which began Tuesday afternoon on a military aerial bombing range about 25 miles north of Atlantic City. The forecast for Wednesday called for winds of up to 20 mph with a chance of showers or thunderstorms in the afternoon.

No deaths or injuries have been attributed to the fire, but it has forced the evacuation of about 2,500 homes in the area along the border between Ocean and Burlington counties.

Nearly 700 people remained in shelters Wednesday, Drew Lieb with the New Jersey State Police said. Many of the evacuees were senior citizens who fled the advancing flames clutching only a pet.

“I didn’t grab anything but the cat and myself, and we scrammed,” said Helen Sura, who evacuated a housing development in Barnegat.

She and her cat, the aptly named Smoky, spent a sleepless night in her car in a Burger King parking lot.

“I was freezing because I didn’t think to grab a sweater or a blanket,” she said. “I figured we’d be back home in a few hours at most.”

Eileen Papini also grabbed her cat, Puddycat, and fled the advancing flames.

“The smoke was so bad you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” she said.

Her trailer park, Pinewood Estates in Barnegat, suffered serious damage, authorities said. Several mobile homes there were damaged by the blaze. Papini was wondering if hers was among them.

“You don’t know if you have a home to go back to,” she said.

The fire destroyed three homes and 12 to 15 were heavily damaged in Ocean County, Forest Fire Service assistant division warden Chris Irick said.

Evacuees described a rapidly advancing fire that mowed down everything in its path.

“It looked like big black clouds, lit up with orange fire, 40, 50 feet in the air, coming right toward you,” said Stan Wesolowski of Barnegat. Like many other evacuees, he spent the night in his car rather than in one of several shelters set up in local schools. “It was a wall of flames coming right down the street.”

Forest Fire Service spokesman Willie Cirone said firefighters successfully conducted two controlled fires along the Garden State Parkway and Route 72 overnight to help contain the blaze by eliminating underbrush and other flammable material.

Routes 539 and 72 were closed by the fire, which started about 2:15 p.m. on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for aerial bombing practice by Air National Guard units.

Lt. Col. James Garcia, a spokesman for the New Jersey Air National Guard, said it was believed a flare dropped from one its F-16s may have started the blaze.

The range was the same facility from which a National Guard jet accidentally strafed an elementary school with large-caliber rounds in 2004 during a training exercise.

State police were closely monitoring the Garden State Parkway and planned to close a portion of the toll road if visibility became dangerously low.

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