BARNEGAT, N.J. - Eighty-five-year-old Lester Balkie yesterday sat next to the piles of ash and charred wood that used to be his home, trying desperately to engrave the sound of his wife's graceful laugh into his memory.
Memories of his beloved Katherine, who died seven months ago from cancer, are all Balkie has left after a fierce fire swept through the New Jersey Pinelands this week, consuming 14,000 acres of woodland and destroying five homes, including his.
"I used to have a tape, a videotape, with her voice on it, her laugh," said Balkie, wiping away tears with his denim sleeve as he recalled his bride of 62 years. "It's really all I had left of her. Now it's gone."
Balkie, a World War II veteran of the Navy, lost just about everything he owned when fire consumed his mobile home at Brighton at Barnegat, an over-55 community in Barnegat Township where he and his wife lived for 23 years.
Balkie was among about 6,000 people allowed to return to their homes yesterday in several developments here and in neighboring Stafford Township. Those residents had been evacuated Tuesday evening after a flare dropped from a National Guard F-16 on a training mission apparently ignited a wildfire that quickly spread over a 22-square-mile area of southern Ocean County. Low humidity, high winds and dry conditions from lack of rain contributed to the rapid spread of the blaze, officials said.
Luckily, the fire - which was 70 percent contained yesterday after a storm dumped rain on the region - did not take any lives, or cause any serious injuries.
But losing possessions he held dear - old wedding pictures, Valentines received long ago from his children who now have children of their own, and a tape with the voice of his beloved wife - has left a crater in Balkie's heart that may never heal.
"How do you pick up the pieces from something like this, how do you go on?" a bewildered Balkie asked as his sons, daughter and grandchildren sifted through the ashes looking for anything salvageable.
It's a question Balkie is also asking of an insurance company he says doesn't want to cover him completely for his material losses, and of the military, which has promised aid to the fire victims.
The military says it is conducting an investigation to determine what went wrong in the routine training exercise and how best to compensate the victims who lost homes or whose property was damaged by the fire, according to Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, who commands New Jersey's Army and Air National Guard.
"Besides the emotional hardship this is causing my grandfather, this is also going to be a difficult financial burden for him and his family to deal with," Patrick E. Seagraves said as he waded through the rubble. "Now he is essentially a homeless veteran because of a mistake the military made."
Whenever someone would find something during the search yesterday - a half-melted WWII medal, a charred Navy ring his wife had given him, a pack of pictures not completely burned - they would give the object to Balkie, and he would take it into his frail hands and remember.
And the memories brought comfort and a faint smile to the grieving man every now and then.
"We have all happy memories here. My parents had such a wonderful life here and he loved my mother so, so very much," said Balkie's daughter, Janice Murray. "This is like seeing the end of a beautiful love story."
Lester Balkie was born in Philadelphia and served in the war as a young man before starting his working life as a welder. He eventually moved on to a supervisory job at Keebler's, his children said, and moved to Barnegat Township in 1983, when he retired.
He and his wife came to the Pinelands for the beauty and serenity of the region. Balkie spent many hours gardening in his landscaped yard and hosting family barbecues, where he'd blast lively German or tropical music.
His backyard abutted a tranquil pine forest that quickly erupted into an inferno Tuesday evening.
And in almost the same random way a tornado might sweep through a line of houses, obliterating one but leaving another standing next to it intact, so did the fire as it roared out of the woods and onto Brighton Road, where Balkie lived. The flames took his home and the one next to it, but left houses next to them and across the street mostly unscathed.
"It's a frightening thing to see," said Jack "Bear" Roberts, 81, who lives across the street. "It could have been my home or any of these homes. Unfortunately, it was his home. Why do such terrible things always seem to happen to the nicest people?"
Roberts said he found it ironic that a veteran would end up having his home destroyed by a military training exercise.
"He honorably served his country, and his country should now step up and honor him by helping him," Roberts said.
Unpredictable winds yesterday played tricks with firefighters trying to extinguish a 14,000-acre wildfire in Burlington and Ocean Counties that had been tamed only by a driving rain Wednesday night.
Pockets of flames occasionally rose from parts of the nearly 22 square miles of charred trees, coaxed to life by winds that had vexed firefighters since the blaze began Tuesday afternoon. That's when the New Jersey Air National Guard says one of its F-16s dropped a flare into the tinder-dry Pinelands during a training mission, possibly starting the blaze.
The fire was 70 percent contained yesterday afternoon, said Bert Plante, of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, and that was not expected to change until this morning. Some additional rain forecast for late last night into today was expected to help firefighters.
Residents of areas worst hit by the fire were allowed to return to their homes. About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes at the height of the blaze.
Five homes in two senior citizens' housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed and 13 other homes along the line separating Ocean and Burlington Counties were damaged, officials said. No deaths and only two minor injuries, to firefighters, were reported.
The fire started on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for bombing practice by military aircraft. The range was the same facility from which a National Guard jet accidentally strafed an elementary school with large-caliber rounds in 2004 during a training exercise. In 2001, an errant practice bomb caused a fire that burned more than 1,600 acres of pine forest.
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.
For Information on Claims
The Air Force has established a claims-processing center.
A claim can be filed at the Tuckerton New Jersey Army National Guard Armory at 365 E. Main St. on Route 9. The center will operate 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as long as there is a need to file claims. Bring a photo ID.
For more information, please contact the Air Force claims processing team at 609-296-2129.
Anyone wishing to contribute to a fund to assist Lester Balkie can do so at any Bank of America branch in the Delaware Valley or by sending the funds to: Bank of America, c/o Lester Balkie Donation Fund, 65 Nautilus Dr., Manahawkin, N.J. 08050.
For a slide show of scenes from the wildfire, visit http://go.philly.com/fireEndText