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U.S. Senate bill targets Pinelands fire, other military mishaps

WARREN GROVE, N.J. - Sandy Smolski was among about 6,000 people routed from their homes in May when a practice flare dropped during a military flight exercise sparked a fire that scorched 17,000 acres of the Pinelands.

WARREN GROVE, N.J. - Sandy Smolski was among about 6,000 people routed from their homes in May when a practice flare dropped during a military flight exercise sparked a fire that scorched 17,000 acres of the Pinelands.

"To be told that we had to get out immediately, and that we could lose everything, was the scariest thing anyone ever said to me," Smolski, 43, recalled this week.

The Little Egg Harbor mother of two takes little comfort in a defense authorization bill passed Wednesday by the U.S. Senate: The bill contains a measure to increase safety and military accountability at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, from where the plane had taken off.

The Air National Guard training facility, in Little Egg Harbor Township, has been closed since the blaze. But with Warren Grove maneuvers resulting in five serious accidents in eight years - including a 2004 incident in which an F-16 fired 40 rounds of live ammunition that struck an elementary school - Smolski and others say that anything short of permanently shutting the range isn't enough.

"I almost feel like they're waiting for someone to be killed before they actually close down the range," said Marie Zinn, Smolski's neighbor. "Unless they do that, they can't really say for sure that we are safe."

In 2002, a pilot ejected from an F-16 moments before it crashed into the woods near a busy stretch of the Garden State Parkway.

In another accident, a plane dumped a dummy bomb a mile off target in 1999, igniting a blaze that charred 12,000 acres of the environmentally sensitive Pinelands. And in 1997, two pilots escaped injury when they ejected from an F-16 over the Atlantic Ocean off Brigantine.

Demand to close the range for good intensified after the fire in May. The public had been "threatened too many times," said Gov. Corzine, who added that he was "strongly in favor of its closing."

Warren Grove was scheduled to reopen on a limited basis last Thursday, after a comprehensive safety plan by the state's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs was submitted to the governor. But it remains closed, awaiting Corzine's approval.

"The governor is not blocking the reopening of the range," a Corzine spokesman said Wednesday. "But he is concerned that sufficient safety measures have not been imposed to prevent the kinds of accidents from happening that we have seen there previously."

The spokesman said the governor's office continues to work with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to refine procedures at the federal facility, which has been in operation since the 1940s and, since 9/11, has provided a practice gunnery range for fighter jets patrolling the East Coast.

Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) co-authored the amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, passed Wednesday, that calls for greater accountability by the military at Warren Grove. The measure is a compromise between the needs of the community and the military, the lawmakers said.

"Safety must improve at Warren Grove. It is vital that we do everything in our power to ensure that the [Air National] Guard becomes a better neighbor . . . " Lautenberg said in a written statement. "This measure would ensure accountability and give residents input into developments at the range."

The amendment requires the secretary of the Air Force and the New Jersey Air National Guard to issue a report within 90 days on steps to improve safety, and to issue reports annually for two years on how the precautions were implemented.

It also requires a study to be completed within 180 days on issues including the effect of Warren Grove on the region's economy and how the facility impacts the local environment and public, health, safety and welfare.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.) sent Corzine a letter urging him to reopen the gunnery range, which is the primary training facility for the National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing based in Egg Harbor Township, part of the congressman's district.

Without the range nearby, LoBiondo warned Corzine, the 177th could be shut down by the military during future realignments.