A Pinelands forest fire that was probably sparked by a flare dropped during an Air National Guard training mission was burning out of control early this morning, consuming thousands of acres in Burlington and Ocean Counties and forcing thousands of evacuations and several road closures.

Close to 12,000 acres had burned - the widest destruction in six years, officials with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service said. Firefighters expected to be at the scene through the night.

"It has a great potential to be much larger," said Bert Plante, division fire warden for the Forest Fire Service.

The fire is likely to have started during bombing training at Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Bass River Township shortly after 2 p.m., New Jersey Air National Guard officials said.

"Early indications are it was caused by a flare from one of the 177th Fighter Wing aircraft during a training mission," spokesman Kryn Westhoven said. "Flares are part of the training and normally they burn out before they reach the ground," he said.

"Sometimes during the training, the missile goes slightly off and hits a patch of woods, but we see it and are able to quickly put it out," Lt. Col. James Garcia said. "In this case, the flare may have been taken by the wind to where we couldn't see it go down and it was able to spread."

The cause was under investigation, he said.

Officials said dry conditions and wind gusts as high as 30 m.p.h. contributed to the fire's rapid spread. When asked, Garcia could not say why the training practice was allowed to go on under such conditions.

In 2004, a District of Columbia Air National Guard jet fighter headed for Warren Grove mistakenly opened fire on Little Egg Harbor Township Intermediate School in Ocean County. At least five 20mm cannon rounds from the F-16 penetrated the school's roof, the ceilings of two classrooms and a storage area. There were no classes that day, so no one was injured.

There were no reported injuries from the fire late last night, but about 2,500 homes had been evacuated, and the fire was growing, State Police Sgt. Steve Jones said. A nursing home was evacuated, according to fire officials.

The fire jumped across Route 539, causing the evacuation of the Pinewood Estates retirement community. Several other housing developments in Barnegat and Stafford Township in Ocean County were evacuated, including Fawn Lakes, Ocean Acres and Atlantic Hills.

Rita Frankewitch, 66, a Pinewood Estates resident, left work last night to find that all roads to her home were blocked.

"I'm afraid I'm going to lose my home. I'm afraid I'm going to lose everything," Frankewitch said. "The police went in the house for my puppy and my neighbor brought it to work. Thank God."

Last night, evacuees were being directed to shelters such as the one set up at Southern Regional High School in Stafford.

The school can accommodate 1,000 people and expected 500 cots from the Red Cross, township shelter director Maryann Carricarte said. Due to road closures, however, the Red Cross was having trouble getting through, she said last night.

Helen Semrau, a senior citizen who turned to the makeshift shelter, left her home in the Atlantic Hills development with just her dog and an overnight bag.

She said she could smell smoke as she drove away. When she turned to look back moments later, she saw a wall of flames. "I'm very scared," Semrau said. "I have no idea what's going to happen to me or my home."

Last night, smoky plumes filled the sky miles away from the blaze. At least six homes in a mobile home park in Barnegat Township were damaged, with firefighters trying to protect the remaining homes, Plante said. Many roads in the area were closed.

Fire trucks were being moved into front yards in the village of Warren Grove, where homes were also threatened, Plante said.

The fire towers in the scrub forest of the Pinelands picked up smoke near the border of Ocean and Burlington Counties, near Bass River, Plante said.

The wind rapidly spread the fire into the Stafford Forge Wildlife Management Area, property owned by the state Fish and Game Division. The firefighting involved at least 30 Forest Fire Service engines, bulldozers to cut the fuel, two helicopters, and three fixed-wing air tankers that dropped water, Plante said.

The area burning was at the edge of the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands national preserve, about 25 miles north of Atlantic City.

The last fire comparably large was in 2001, when 12,000 acres burned in the Bass River State Forest after a practice bomb fell out of the impact area of the New Jersey National Guard training range, Plante said.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.
Inquirer correspondent Cori Anne Natoli contributed to this article. It also includes information from the Associated Press.