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Rain expected to help NJ firefighting efforts

Residents evacuated from homes second time as wildfire burns 14,000 acres.

BY P.J. HELLER | BARNAGET, N.J. | May 16, 2007

"We're rooting for the rain to continue for a week or so, but I don't think we're going to get that."

—Bert Plante

A wildfire which forced the evacuation of an estimated 6,000 people in two New Jersey counties could be contained as early as Thursday, officials said.

"We may even get containment by tomorrow," said division fire warden Bert Plante of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

Plante made the comment Wednesday night as a thunderstorm with light showers passed over Ocean and Burlington counties, where the fire has burned some 14,000 acres.

"A lot of it [containment] is going to have to do with just how much rain we get out of this thunderstorm," he said. "We're rooting for the rain to continue for a week or so, but I don't think we're going to get that."

Firefighters had their hands full Wednesday as winds, with gusts up to 35 miles per hour, spread the flames. About 700 residents who were allowed to return to their homes earlier in the day were ordered back out again in the afternoon. Some 2,500 homes were evacuated as well as three nursing homes.

"It's been a very difficult day, very difficult," Plante said. "The weather turned out to be a bit more critical than was predicted and we had some very active fire behavior, extreme fire behavior, for most of the afternoon."

By nightfall, the fire remained at about 30 percent contained. At least five mobile homes were destroyed and eight others damaged in Barnegat Township, officials reported. There were no reports of any deaths or injuries.

Smoke from the blaze forced intermittent closures of the Garden State Parkway and Route 72. About 19 miles of the parkway were closed at one point during the day due to dense smoke, Plante reported. Route 539 was shut all day.

About 150 people were being sheltered at Southern Regional High School in Stafford, he said. A second shelter at the Brackman Middle School in Barnegat was closed Wednesday morning.

The fire erupted Tuesday afternoon on the Warren Grove Weapons Range in Ocean County. Initial reports said the fire may have been sparked by a flare from a New Jersey National Guard F-16 that was on a bombing run over the weapons range. The Air Force has launched two investigations into the fire and said if it is at fault, it would assume all liability for losses to homes and other personal property.

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