LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Firefighters had the massive Pinelands forest fire nearly contained yesterday, aided by a gentle, soaking rain. Meanwhile, military officials announced that training has been suspended at the aerial bombing range where the fire got started on Tuesday, pending the findings of an accident investigation board.
The blaze was between 90 and 95 percent contained as of late yesterday afternoon, said Jim Petrini, assistant fire warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
He said it would probably be another 24 hours at the earliest before the fire could be declared under control.
The fire had burned 17,250 acres as of yesterday.
"We really appreciate this latest rain," said Bert Plante, a division fire warden with the fire service. "So far, it's been light but steady, coming down slowly and giving everything a good soaking, and that helps a lot."
It was the second rainstorm in three days that helped subdue the blaze. Two hours of driving rain Wednesday night doused a large portion of the fire, just as walls of fire made a run toward the Garden State Parkway and the heavily populated communities east of the heavily traveled toll road.
The New Jersey Air National Guard says one of its F-16s dropped a flare into the tinder-dry Pinelands during a training mission Tuesday afternoon, possibly starting the blaze.
Yesterday, Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, New Jersey adjutant general, said he had directed the 177th Fighter Wing unit at Atlantic City International Airport to stand down from all flying activity for the day and conduct an all-day safety review.
Also yesterday, the Air Force announced that it has convened an accident investigation board to review how the blaze got started on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for bombing practice by military aircraft.
All training at Warren Grove has been suspended until the investigation is complete, officials said.
The military has promised to reimburse those who lost homes or property in the fire if federal investigations pinpoint the jet as the cause of the blaze. Officials began handing out claims forms Thursday to property owners who had suffered losses in the fire.
About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes at the height of the blaze.
No deaths and only two minor injuries to firefighters were reported. Five homes in two senior- citizen-housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed and 13 other homes along the line separating Ocean and Burlington counties were damaged, officials said.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., toured the area yesterday afternoon and said exercises at Warren Grove "have become a major public-safety issue."
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. In 2001, an errant practice bomb caused a fire that burned more than 1,600 acres of pine forest.
"It is becoming clear that the Air National Guard needs to either change protocols or change its mission at Warren Grove," Menendez said. "Failure to convincingly prove that they have changed procedures to ensure this will not happen again may lead to my advocacy for change of mission or closure.
"I support and respect our military," he said, "and I hope that we can work cooperatively to make the necessary changes that will ensure the safety of nearby residents." *