LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Rain reduced a 22-square-mile wildfire to mostly smoldering brush today, but fire officials warned that flames could rekindle if the wind picks up.
Virtually no smoke was visible this morning over blackened scrub pines that only a day earlier were consumed by a 100-foot-high wall of flames. The challenge now was to consolidate gains that the rain, and a massive firefighting effort, had made.
"A fire this big, we're not going to be able to put out," said Bert Plante, a division fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "What we want to do today is push everything deep enough in so that if anything happens, it won't matter," Plante said.
Firefighters were using heavy equipment, including bulldozers, to plow through smoldering areas and extinguish hot spots, as well as to clear fire lines through smoldering areas. The idea was to further isolate the blaze should winds pick up and fan the flames again.
The fire, which began Tuesday afternoon on a military bombing range in the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens region, charred about 14,000 acres by 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. That's when a line of thunderstorms crossed the area, dumping a half-inch of rain on the fire zone over the next two hours.
The fire that scorched parts of Burlington and Ocean Counties was 70 percent contained in an area bordered by Routes 539 and 72 and the heavily traveled Garden State Parkway.
Authorities said the blaze was caused by a National Guard F-16 jet that dropped a flare during a training exercise over the tinder-dry area. 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.
About 500 people who had been evacuated from their homes remained in emergency shelters at area schools overnight, but many were allowed to return home this morning. About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes.
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 were damaged.