The heat and wind of the head fire explode the stones of the forest floor, melt the blacktop roads they meet, uproot the trees that stand in their path, and throw burning chunks of trees thousands of feet through the air.
"Once that monster gets up on his hind feet, you can't imagine the roar of the wind, and the smoke. It tears trees right from the ground and throws burning embers into the woods a mile away, starting fires in front of itself," said Alfred G. Smith, an assistant warden for the state Forest Fire Service in the division that covers the central portion of the state, most of it in the Pine Barrens.
These days, the wardens are on edge, knowing that this is the season of such beasts. The forest fires here at this time of year can be some of the hottest and fastest moving anywhere in the country. The defense against them in the million acres of forest within the division is left to about 30 full- time employees and to the hourly workers who will swell the division's ranks to as many as 200 people in the event of a huge wildfire.
In the spring, when there are no leaves on the scrub oaks that grow among the pines, there is little to shield the pine needles and leaves on the forest floor from the sun and wind. And in a year such as this, with rainfall five inches below average, the woods burn easily. The lowest Pine Barrens rainfall on record came in 1963, as did the most destructive Pine Barrens fires in recent years.
What is known as The Fire of 1963 was actually a series of 100 fires over three days that killed seven people and destroyed 186 residences and 404 structures in all. The fire charred nearly 4 percent of the state when it ran unchecked through 297 square miles of forest, hurling burning matter more than six miles.
"Our fires burn harder and faster than in any part of the country," Smith said. He attributed that to the density of the highly flammable pines, and to the sandy soil, which dries out quickly.
"In 1971 one of our fires burned 21,000 acres in seven hours. That's 3,000 acres an hour or 50 acres a minute. And that's just an average. At its peak it was probably burning somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 acres an hour," Smith said.
"I told some forest-fire fighters from California that our fire burned 21,000 acres in seven hours and they laughed. They thought I was joking.
"This year has the potential for another fire on the scale of the '63 disaster" - notwithstanding the rain that fell late in March and early this month, he said. "It doesn't mean a thing. We had 2 1/2 inches of rain on Good Friday, and we had a 110-acre fire on Easter. We're in trouble."
The watchers in the eight fire towers - one man to each 7 1/2-square-foot cabin about 100 feet above the Pine Barrens' sandy soil - form the fire service's first line of defense. On any day that the risk of fire is high, generally from March 15 to May 15, the watchers will be in the towers. This year, they trekked the metal stairs on and off throughout the winter.
Pete Bender is one of the watchers. When all is quiet in the woods below, he monitors the weather and keeps an eye on the sea of evergreens that stretches to the horizon in all directions. He fends off the boredom while filling his little cast iron ashtray with Chesterfield butts.
When Bender and his counterparts spot a little puff of gray smoke out in the woods, they send the fire service racing to the scene.
Bender's radio message sends a fire warden charging toward the blaze, and Bender calls in backup crews if necessary. He begins to pinpoint the fire location by lining up the smoke in the sights of his alidade, a surveying instrument calibrated with the 360 degrees of the compass. He calls the fire in to the base in the Lebanon State Forest, and someone in the office stretches a string on a wall map from the circle marking Bender's tower along the line he indicates. Watchers in other towers line up the smoke from other angles so that strings can be stretched from other circles on the map. The point where the strings cross is the location of the fire.
At such times, Bender becomes communications central for the fire crews below, calling for trucks from other sections, moving crews around, fielding phone calls from police departments and people with radio scanners.
"Some days you sit here with nothing to do, your heels up, kicked back," he said, lighting another cigarette. "And then all of a sudden you have a fire and all hell breaks loose."
If Bender and his counterparts are the first line of defense, Rich MacMaster and the nine other section wardens are the second line. MacMaster is responsible for a 133,000-acre section of public and private forest and wetlands between Route 72 and Barnegat Bay.
When word of a fire comes from a fire tower, he heads his oversized red Dodge pickup truck in the direction of the fire, turns off the paved road onto one of the yellow gravel roads that crisscross the Pine Barrens and guns the truck down the washboard surface. He turns onto the unimproved white sand roads, skirting the deep, loose "sugar" sand until he is forced to make his own road, dodging the oaks and other big trees, driving over the smaller pines, trying to reach the fire while he can still fight it with the 250 gallons of water he carries.
If the fire is small and easily controlled, MacMaster may put it out
himself, driving with one hand, operating the hose from his water tank with the other. But if the fire is a potential problem, he will arrange through the fire tower to have a crew meet him nearby.
The crew is never more than three, because only three people can find refuge in the truck's cab if a wind shift or mechanical problem should place them in the path of the fire.
MacMaster and the crew push the limits of carbon monoxide poisoning and dehydration trying to stop the fire before it breaks out of control. On a hot, dry, windy day they may have as little as 10 minutes before the fire is unmanageable.
If his crew can't knock down the fire from the truck, MacMaster calls in the biplanes, cropdusters that are on call during the fire season.
And if both trucks and planes are defeated, there is only one way to stop the fire - starvation.
"Once it gets away from you, the only thing you can do is take away its fuel," MacMaster said.
That amounts to figuring out where it's going, finding a barrier in its path such as a stream or road, and starting a backfire. The slow-burning backfire is set at the edge of the stream or road to burn against the wind toward the wildfire. The firefighters patrol the backfire, to ensure that it doesn't pass the barrier, but let it burn toward the wildfire.
When the two fires meet, they make a climactic leap into the air, and for a few minutes the wind gets even wilder. Then the wildfire reaches past the backfire to its barren path, and it falters and the wind slows. If the wildfire cannot jump over the area burned by the backfire, it slows and begins to die. Then all that is left is to bring in the bulldozer to carve out the perimeter and then patrol it, letting the fire die a smoldering death.
"We think about it as something else other than a fire. It's our enemy that has to be defeated," MacMaster said.