LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Unpredictable winds played tricks yesterday with firefighters trying to extinguish a once-massive wildfire, tamed the night before by a driving rain.
Pockets of flame occasionally rose from parts of the nearly 22 square miles of charred trees, coaxed to life by winds that have vexed firefighters since the blaze began Tuesday.
"Look: There goes one now," said Bert Plante, a division fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, pointing to a column of smoke rising from an area of the horizon that had been clear only moments earlier. "We're still getting these little flare-ups."
New Jersey Air National Guard say they believe that the fire started when one of their F-16s dropped a flare into the tinder-dry Pinelands during a training mission Tuesday.
Five homes in two senior-citizen-housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed, and 13 homes along the line separating Ocean and Burlington counties were damaged, but no deaths and only two minor injuries were reported, officials said. Most of the roughly 6,000 people who evacuated about 2,500 homes were allowed to return yesterday.
Lester Balkie, 85, was among those who lost their homes. His trailer in the Brighton at Barnegat development burned to the ground.
Tugging at his denim shirttails with both hands, he announced, "This is everything I own now."
Behind him, his children and other relatives picked through the ashes of what once had been his home. What they managed to save fit into the palm of his hand: an expandable watch band, a commemorative coin, and a few other scraps of metal.
The fire, 70 percent contained yesterday, started on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for bombing practice by military aircraft. The military has promised to reimburse those who lost homes or property in the fire if federal investigations find the jet caused the blaze.
Although more than a half-inch of rain fell on the blaze Wednesday night, just as the fire was threatening to make a run at the heavily traveled Garden State Parkway, large sections of the 14-thousand-acre fire area remained smoldering yesterday. Some additional rain forecast for last night into today was expected to help. *