The massive fire that destroyed homes as it burned 20 square miles of South Jersey Pinelands has raised the stakes over whether to close the New Jersey Air National Guard's Warren Grove gunnery range.
Officials suspect that the blaze was ignited Tuesday by a flare dropped from an F-16 fighter plane during a training run at the range. The Pinelands were tinder dry, and the fire spread quickly to consume more than 14,000 acres in Burlington and Ocean Counties.
Although the Pinelands region is sparsely populated, the disruption of residents' lives was considerable.
Five homes were destroyed in two senior-citizen housing developments in Barnegat, including one owned by a veteran of World War II. Thirteen other homes were heavily burned; in all, about 50 homes received some damage. Some residents also lost cars and boats. More than 6,000 people had to be evacuated from 2,500 homes, including 300 residents of three nursing homes.
Heavy smoke shut Garden State Parkway and other roads; state and local emergency personnel worked overtime for three days.
Forest fires have many causes, but this one seems to have been especially preventable.
It's the worst, but not the first, example of military exercises at Warren Grove endangering the public. In 2004, cannon rounds from an F-16 accidentally hit an elementary school. In 2002, an F-16 pilot ejected before the plane crashed near Garden State Parkway, throwing debris onto the busy road. In 1999, a plane dropped a dummy bomb more than a mile off its target, igniting a forest fire that burned 12,000 acres.
Air Force and National Guard officials had promised to step up safety precautions after those earlier episodes. But this week's fire shows that those steps weren't good enough. Even if a probe determines another cause of this fire, why were fighter pilots allowed to drop flares over the Pinelands when fire danger was so high?
The Air Force showed it's taking the accident seriously by quickly setting up a claims center in Tuckerton where affected residents can receive checks of $25,000. But Air Force officials must know that money can't fully compensate people who've lost homes and possessions.
Three South Jersey legislators are calling on federal officials to suspend operations at the range and consider closing it. It would inconvenience military personnel to close Warren Grove, which is one of the few training ranges on the East Coast. But they can train at other locations.