LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - A fire roughly the size of Manhattan scorched forest and earth for more than a day - taxing exhausted firefighters and forcing residents to flee - before last night's rains fell, offering some relief.
By 9:30 p.m., a half-inch of rain had fallen, and officials reported that 70 percent of the fire had been contained.
Before the rain started falling, the blaze had scorched about 14,000 acres, or roughly 20 square miles, forced the evacuation of 6,000 people in Ocean and Burlington Counties, and called on the resources of 1,000 firefighters and police officers.
Maris Gabliks, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said most of the evacuees had been allowed to return to their homes last night. Only about 500 people remained in shelters, including 300 residents from three local nursing homes. He also said he was reducing firefighter and police manpower to about 100 people overnight.
Before the rains, firefighters had relied on land crews and single-engine "waterbomber" planes.
"From the air, the smoke was so thick you could hardly see through it," said pilot Ed Carter Jr. "Flames were topping, running across the tops of the trees. Most of them pines are probably 30, 40, 50 feet, and the flames were running right across them."
Where the smoke cleared, Carter saw the power of the wildfire that has raged since Tuesday. "It's burnt right to the dirt. Everything is gone," he said. "Some of the bigger trunks are still standing, but the limbs, needles, all gone. The stumps look like naked telephone poles sticking up there."
This was the kind of fire that could be stopped only by rain, officials had said. Firefighters watched the skies yesterday, waiting for the forecast thunderstorms, and rain finally began to fall late in the day.
If the fire had jumped across the Garden State Parkway, then thousands more acres of forest and hundreds of homes would been threatened, Gabliks said. "We got rain and that's a blessing," he said.
By the end of yesterday, all roads were reopened, and only two minor injuries, to firefighters, had been reported.
Earlier yesterday, officials had feared that the blaze might cover 17,000 acres before it was extinguished. That would have made it the worst Pinelands fire since 1995, when 19,000 acres burned in northern Ocean County.
This fire - apparently sparked accidentally Tuesday afternoon by a flare from a military plane - spread fast and unpredictably, aided by high winds and dry conditions.
The shifting flames also played havoc on the residents who live nearby. In Barnegat Township, more than 50 people went into a temporary shelter at Brackman Middle School Tuesday before being told it was safe to go home later that night.
Yesterday, the fire changed direction again, and the evacuees returned to the shelter, where they tried to pass the time.
Carol Berni and her husband, Bill, played rummy and talked about when they were living in Palm Coast, Fla., and they had to flee a forest fire. They moved into Barnegat's Heritage Point retirement community a year ago.
"We just built this house and then we saw a billow of smoke," Carol Berni said. "And it was like deja vu."
Bill Berni said they heard a voice on a loudspeaker Tuesday night telling them there was a mandatory evacuation.
"We grabbed our important papers, important family photos," he said. "I couldn't grab them all. We have so many. . . . When you see smoke like that, you worry about your home burning and everything in it."
Thousands had to make the same split-second decision of what to take and what to abandon. For Helen Sura, 73, she grabbed a pack of Winstons and her aptly named cat, Smokey.
Later, she found out her shelter did not take pets, so Sura spent the night in her car in a Burger King parking lot.
The hurried manner in which folks had to leave was evident in the eerie silence at the Brighton at Barnegat mobile home park, where windows and doors were left open by fleeing residents.
Two of the five homes destroyed in the fire once sat in the park. All that remained of them yesterday were the masonry front steps and some concrete lawn ornaments.
About 200 firefighters from five counties were in charge of protecting the homes and property left behind.
Chris Chlebowski, chief of the East Dover Fire Company, called the scene "an organized chaos." But, other than some melted vinyl siding, the homes his crew were protecting remained unscathed.
"You have to be prepared, especially with the amount of homes in these woods," he said. "Even a small area can explode into a forest fire very quickly."
An additional 200 Forest Fire Service firefighters were in charge of battling the blaze in 12-hour shifts, mostly trying to contain it through controlled burns of brush and other flammables in its path.
Routes 539 and 72 were closed for most of the day, although Route 72 opened westbound in the evening. A five-mile stretch of the parkway also shut down for three hours yesterday because of heavy smoke.
The military was investigating the cause of the fire, and the results of that inquiry would be made public, officials said. Military representatives also met with people who lost their homes in the fire yesterday and promised a $25,000 stipend to help them recover.
"We are members of the community . . . so the safety of the community is our number one goal," said Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the commander of the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard. "We feel for those who have lost their homes."
A flare fired during bombing training at Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Bass River Township was the likely culprit, the New Jersey Air National Guard has said.
Despite all the trouble and loss, Mary Raab, a Heritage Point resident, kept a healthy perspective. "Our lives are the most important thing," she said. "We're glad we got out in time."
View video, a photo gallery of a controlled burn and more at http://go.philly.com/earth
Will Rain Help the Firefighters?
The bone-dry May conditions that helped stoke the fires in South Jersey evidently are about to change dramatically.
Precipitation at Burlington County measuring stations was a paltry 0.2 inches through Tuesday, or 14 percent of normal, according to the National Weather Service. At the Atlantic City station, it was 0.44 inches, or 1.25 inches below normal. Ocean County was at 0.3 inches, or 19 percent of normal.
Those deficits, however, could disappear by Saturday. Rain arrived late yesterday, with showers also in the forecast for today, tomorrow and into Saturday morning.
While the strong wind gusts feared by firefighters were possible in thunderstorms, they were forecast to average a more-modest 8 to 15 m.p.h. during the rainfall.