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Guard pressed for fire answers

N.J.'s two U.S. senators demanded assurances against more problems involving jets.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg will hold a meeting Monday.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg will hold a meeting Monday.Read more

This week's military mistake that burned 17,250 acres of New Jersey's Pinelands and routed thousands from their homes brought demands from both of the state's U.S. senators yesterday that the Air National Guard prove it will not cause another tragedy.

"New Jersey's firefighters and first-responders risk their lives to protect the Pine Barrens and our local communities," said a harshly worded statement from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who has summoned the Air National Guard's three top generals to his Washington office Monday.

"But this fire never should have started - period," said Lautenberg, a Democrat. "This fire started because the National Guard did not follow proper safety procedures - procedures I called for nearly three years ago. New Jerseyans expect their military to act more safely and more carefully."

The blaze in the environmentally sensitive region of Burlington and Ocean Counties left a prehistoric landscape of smoldering pools and blackened sticks, and a chorus of calls for change.

The military says the fire appears to have been started by a practice flare fired by an F-16 fighter pilot near the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Stafford Township, Ocean County.

It was the fifth serious Air National Guard accident in the last decade, the others being another massive wildfire, the strafing of a middle school, a fighter crash near the Garden State Parkway, and a midair collision that sank a $16 million jet in the ocean.

"It's time for accountability," Lautenberg said yesterday. "I need to meet with these generals face to face to get firm commitments on improving safety, training, operations, and chain of command at the range."

Sen. Robert Menendez, also a Democrat, toured the area yesterday and said exercises at Warren Grove "have become a major public-safety issue."

"It is becoming clear that the Air National Guard needs to either change protocols or change its mission at Warren Grove," he said. "Failure to convincingly prove that they have changed procedures to ensure this will not happen again may lead to my advocacy for change of mission or closure."

Maj. Gen. Glenn Rieth, commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard, yesterday ordered a one-day stand-down for pilots in the guard's 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City for an all-day review of safety procedures.

Rieth, who is expected to be at Monday's meeting in Lautenberg's office, argued during a visit to the 9,400-acre Warren Grove range this week that the facility is a crucial training ground for military units that include Iraq-bound Marines and anti-terror patrols in the United States.

By yesterday afternoon, firefighters said the blaze was from 90 to 95 percent contained, aided by a gentle, soaking rain. It will likely be until later today before it can be declared under control, said Jim Petrini, assistant fire warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

Some people who live in the area question why a military pilot would drop a flare during a practice mission on Tuesday - a day of gusty wind and arid conditions.

The fire spread quickly and routed about 6,000 people from their homes, many of them retirees in age-restricted communities or nursing homes. No one was killed or hurt. Five homes were destroyed, and 13 were significantly burned. An additional 50 houses sustained damage.

When the Warren Grove Gunnery Range was created after World War II, the area was largely unpopulated. But 60 years later, the range finds itself on the fringe of one of the fastest-growing counties in America's most crowded state.

More than 50,000 people live within 10 miles. The population of surrounding Little Egg Harbor Township has swelled nearly 90 percent, to more than 16,000, in 25 years.

The range, meanwhile, has grown into the busiest practice bombing range on the East Coast.

It also has earned a reputation for spectacular accidents.

When an F-16's Vulcan cannon - more than three miles off-target - blasted 1.5-inch steel training rounds into the roof of the Little Egg Harbor Township Intermediate School during training in November 2004, the public called for tighter controls on Warren Grove.

Had the school, which educates 950 third through sixth graders, not been closed for a teachers' conference, school officials said, there likely would have been casualties from ammunition that ripped through the roof from an altitude of 7,000 feet.

The Air National Guard said at the time that it would review and improve safety guidelines for its training at the gunnery range.

The same promise was made in 2002, when a pilot ejected from an F-16 just before the plane crashed near the parkway, sending large pieces of debris onto the busy highway. No one was hurt.

In 1999, a military plane dumped a dummy bomb a mile off target, igniting an inferno that burned more than 12,000 acres of the Pinelands. Again, no one was killed. In 1997, two F-16s collided at night over the ocean, but the pilots escaped unhurt. One plane crashed and sank. The other, crippled, returned to the airport. The investigation blamed pilot error, saying one jet was flying without lights and the other's pilot was adjusting his night-vision goggles.

"Are they waiting for someone to die before they actually do something about this place?" wondered Melinda Sabo, who has seen two generations of her family affected by accidents near the range. "They've just gotten lucky so far that no one has been killed or seriously injured."

Sabo's mother was among this week's fire evacuees, and her daughter attended the school that was hit by the cannon fire three years ago.

Assemblyman Christopher Connors (R., Ocean-Burlington- Atlantic) said yesterday that he would like to see the range shut down.

"This last incident, along with all the others over the past several years, has raised serious concern about the ability of the military to carry out its mission at Warren Grove without posing a serious threat of injury and property damage to the residents in the surrounding communities," Connors said.

"I think the increase in population in this region has essentially made the gunnery range incompatible with the communities, and serious consideration needs to made about closing the operation and moving it elsewhere," Connors said.