A unit of Iraq-bound Marines called in air support, and military aircraft were roaring overhead Tuesday afternoon at the Warren Grove gunnery range in Ocean County when "something left the airplane," military officials said yesterday.
That something, probably flares dropped by a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16, may have touched off the massive blaze that burned about 20 square miles of the Pinelands this week and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes.
But Army Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, New Jersey's adjutant general, said yesterday that the cause of the fire would not be released until completion of a full probe by an Air Force investigation board. Rieth said he "cannot rule out the flare" as the cause, but "would rather not speculate."
The military investigations began as New Jersey U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg yesterday called for a military review of the fire's cause. "The military needs to review this incident and put in place safeguards so that future exercises do not endanger public safety," Menendez said.
Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for the New Jersey National Guard, said flares "usually burn out before they hit the ground. We're not sure if that was the cause or something else."
Lt. Col. James Garcia, another Guard spokesman, said the Guard checks the weather and forest conditions with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service before military training exercises.
Depending on the conditions, "the restrictions can get tighter - over what ordnance is dropped, the altitude of the planes and what targets are hit," he said. "We always have someone in the tower" overlooking the exercise area to look for fires. "And we have first responders ready to go, our own fire department to put out fires."
The Pinelands inferno follows a Nov. 3, 2004, mistake when F-16 rounds - fired over the 9,400-acre gunnery range in Bass River Township - landed on a school in Little Egg Harbor Township. In that incident, a pilot in the District of Columbia National Guard accidentally squeezed a trigger too hard, engaging the weapon instead of the laser.
On Tuesday, two F-16s from the New Jersey Air National Guard and two A-10 Thunderbolts from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard were flying in a training mission in support of Marines, scheduled to be deployed to Iraq.
"During that exercise event is when the fire started," said Rieth. "Flares were dispersed from one of the aircraft." They are decoys used to attract heat-seeking missiles.
Rieth said personnel in the tower spotted smoke at the fire's origin and fire trucks were sent to the area. "They called for backup," he said, as the fire quickly spread over the dry brush.
The planes' so-called black boxes will provide investigators with information on the altitudes of the jets and whether they released flares, he said.
If the cause is identified and the Guard is determined to be at fault, Rieth said, the Air Force "will incur all liability" for losses. He said Air Force personnel were working with, and providing money to, the families who lost their homes.
"Everyone is probably going to give the bad rap to the National Guard if it turns out to be their fault," said Steve Maurer, the assistant state fire warden. "But the Army National Guard has been a big help. They've supplied two Black Hawks to help drop water. They offered more, but we have what we need from them."
Joy Meola, 58, a resident of Heritage Point, a retirement community in Barnegat Township, said she had seen Guard training missions in the past. "It's just unfortunate this happened. It's like a tinderbox down here. But it could've been someone with a lit cigarette or a campfire or a lightning bolt. It was just an accident."
Bart and Josephine Vollmart, who live with their daughter Juliette and a dog in Horizons, a Barnegat senior citizens community, were not so forgiving. They said they were evacuated Tuesday night and slept in a hotel in Toms River.
"Sure, I blame them," said Bart Vollmart, a former New York City Transit Co. employee. "They bombed the school before this. . . . They should pick up the tab for all this."
Other evacuees left Ocean Acres in Stafford Township and showed up about 3 p.m. yesterday at a shelter at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin. Bill Haberstroh, 32, a truck driver who lives in Ocean Acres, said the Guard pilots "needed a little more air time before they were going to throw flares. They should've taken into consideration the dry weather."
The Air Force has established a claims-processing center for those affected by the fire.
Any claimant in immediate need can file a claim at the Tuckerton New Jersey Army National Guard Armory at 365 East Main St. on Route 9.
The center will operate from noon to 8 p.m. today. Afterward, it will remain open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as long as there is a need to file claims.
Air Force officials ask claimants to bring photo identification.
For more information, please contact the Air Force claims processing team at 609-296-2129.