LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Ninety minutes of heavy rain gave a major assist to firefighters working to subdue a massive wildfire that has charred 13,500 acres of the New Jersey Pinelands, a fire official said last night.
"All the reports we are getting are that the fire is laying right down," said Bert Plante, a spokesman for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
Chris Irick, an assistant division warden with the fire service, said a determination on whether the fire had been contained would not be made until after daybreak today.
A thunderstorm that firefighters had anxiously awaited most of the day arrived over the blaze at about 6:30 p.m., just after high winds from the approaching storm pushed the fire eastward toward the Garden State Parkway, jeopardizing not only the road but thousands of homes east of it.
The rain falling on the flames was creating huge plumes of white steam that was mixing with the gray and black smoke blowing eastward.
By 6 p.m., the fire had burned about 13,500 acres, or almost 20 square miles, according to Maris Gabliks, chief of the fire service.
The blaze, which is believed to have been touched off by a National Guard F-16 that dropped a flare during a training exercise Tuesday afternoon in the tinder-dry Pinelands region, soon sent walls of flame racing toward senior citizen communities, where elderly residents grabbed their pets and ran.
"It was as close to hell on Earth as you'll ever experience in your life," Plante said. Speaking in a trailer park where two homes were incinerated and others damaged, Plante said, "The wall of fire that came here was twice as tall as the trees, easily 80 to 100 feet in the air."
About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes. That included 300 patients in three nursing homes who had been relocated without incident, said State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes.
About 115 people remained in shelters last night, down from about 600 in the morning, Fuentes said.
More than 600 firefighters, some called from as far away as 30 miles, used helicopters, water tanker trucks, bulldozers and other equipment to try to contain the fire, which was burning in the New Jersey Pinelands west of the Garden State Parkway.
The Parkway was closed for a time yesterday in the vicinity of the fire because dense smoke was making it difficult for motorists to see. It was reopened for the entire length yesterday afternoon.
Five homes in two senior citizen housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed.
Two state forest fire officials suffered minor injuries, but no serious injuries or deaths were reported.
However, some of those evacuated recalled frantic flights to escape the blaze.
"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 the 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."
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. "It was a wall of flames coming right down the street."
"This wildfire shows that the Air National Guard has not followed through on its pledge of increased safety," said U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.
In 2001, an errant Air National Guard practice bomb caused a fire that burned more than 1,600 acres in the Pine Barrens. *