Firefighters from throughout South Jersey battled a massive 12-alarm blaze Thursday at a former tire-distribution facility in Camden.

Just after 8 p.m., as storms rolled into the area, fire officials said the blaze had been contained. It was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. At least three firefighters were hospitalized for heat exhaustion.

The fire engulfed vacant buildings formerly used by Reliable Tire Distributors and the Board of Education in the area of Orchard Street and Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden's Parkside neighborhood.

The fire erupted around 4:30 p.m., said city spokesman Robert Corrales. Less than two hours later, fire officials struck a 12th alarm. Dark smoke could be seen for miles as flames spread to neighboring vacant homes.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Reliable Tire Distributors moved to Gloucester Township around 1999. A member of the Betz family, which had owned the company, declined to comment on the fire and referred a reporter to a lawyer who could not be reached.

The blistering afternoon heat and wind caused the fire to spread quickly, said Al Ashley, president of the union that represents superior officers in the Camden Fire Department.

"I've been here 24 years and . . . I've never seen anything like that," he said.

Firefighters also struggled because they did not have enough engine companies to provide water, Ashley said.

"A lot of hydrants are on the same grid, so now we're [also] dealing with water pressure," he said, holding a walkie-talkie on Sycamore Street, where firefighters were pulling boards from closed-up vacant homes in case the fire spread further.

Hector Lopez, 28, was sitting on his couch watching television when he smelled smoke and called 911. He and his family left the house and saw smoke coming from the vacant Board of Education building next door.

Flames started to shoot from the old tire building two doors down, and "then it went everywhere," Lopez said.

His family owns two homes adjacent to the burning building and has lived on the 1100 block of Chestnut Street since 1983.

As the firefighters tried to save their home, the Lopezes watched incredulously.

Displaced residents were shepherded to a staging area at Mount Ephraim and Chestnut.

The initial emergency call came in around 5 p.m., according to the Camden County dispatcher.