Wildfire burns 1,000 acres in Burlington County

Posted: April 10, 2012

Three days after crews battled two suspicious fires that scorched 400 acres in the Pinelands before being controlled, firefighters fought a new wind-whipped blaze on Monday that burned more than twice as many acres and threatened several homes in Burlington County.

Michael Drake, acting fire warden for the state Forest Fire Service, said officials had evidence that Monday's blaze was set, as were Friday's blazes in the Winslow Wildlife Management Area in Camden County. He would not elaborate.

By Monday evening, crews had the fire 50 percent contained to about 1,000 wooded acres in Tabernacle and Woodland Townships. Residents of the scattered settlements, deer-hunter lodges, and other homes beyond the pine trees and dirt roads braced for the worst.

"We had it right here about an hour ago," Karen Clark Shae said Monday afternoon as she stood near her 88-year-old mother's house in a gated compound in Woodland, miles from the nearest paved roads.

"It's mind-boggling to have it right here in your front yard. Thankfully, the firefighters came as fast as they did," she said.

As those firefighters worked to contain the blaze, other crews wrestled with a smaller fire at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to the north that burned more than 300 wooded acres. As of early evening, that fire was 80 percent contained, according to the base.

No injuries or structural damage were reported.

Drake said the spring fire season extends from mid-March to mid-May, when winds are high. But after the unusually dry winter, this season has been especially problematic, he said.

"Usually we still have snow on the ground in March," he said.

Even when it rains, forest fires can still spread in the Pinelands, where the soil is sandy, Drake said. "The soil doesn't hold the moisture," he said.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 472 forest fires, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. During the same period last year, there were 214.

Drake said crews had reduced the threat the flames posed to about 25 homes in Tabernacle. They stopped it from moving from the northwest to the southeast, toward the White Horse section of tiny Chatsworth.

But the wind proved a challenge.

"The wind keeps blowing embers across the line and starting new fires," he said. "Although we have some spottings, I think we should be good through the night."

Bruce Dengler of Chatsworth, which is in Woodland Township, walked out of his home around 11:30 a.m., took a look at the blaze, and started packing up his valuables. They included one of his most prized possessions - a 2009 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"It was orange and black, with heavy smoke coming over," he said of the horizon. "It looked grim."

Stan Fayer, coordinator of Woodland's Office of Emergency Management, said that school buses were on standby to take residents to a temporary shelter at Chatsworth Elementary School and that the township would work with the county on plans for longer-term shelters if needed.

He said emergency officials fielded calls from residents concerned about finding a haven for their animals.

"Just like a hurricane . . . you don't know what it could bring," Fayer said.

There were no reports of injuries or mandatory evacuations, state officials said.

Monday's blaze started in Tabernacle, in the vicinity of Sooy Place Road, and spread to nearby Woodland. A resident who smelled smoke called 911 after midnight and a state fire warden located the fire, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Calls then quickly went out to firefighters, and by afternoon, crews had established a containment line around the blaze.

Some used chainsaws to bring down dead oaks; others combed the woods looking for any evidence that the fire was spreading. Crews used bulldozers to establish containment lines, and helicopters and air tankers were called in to dump water on the flames.

George Jackson III of Tabernacle, a police officer who works part-time on the Forest Fire Service wildfire crew, got his call at 7 a.m.

"With the wind, it's been jumping the road. And with all the dead oaks and leaves, it goes up like a torch," he said.

About 60 New Jersey Forest Fire Service members joined by local firefighters battled the Tabernacle-Woodland blaze.

The recent spate of fires has coincided with a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service for much of the region because conditions - winds, low humidity, and dry ground cover - are ripe for such blazes.

Wind gusts reached 45 m.p.h. on Monday and a red-flag warning for the entire state remained in effect until late Monday.

For Tuesday, the weather service in Mount Holly will have the state under a fire weather watch, a status less serious than a red-flag warning. Wind gusts are not expected to be as strong and humidity is expected to be higher, according to the service. It said meteorologists planned to continue evaluating data Monday night.

Some forest fires are an essential part of the Pinelands' ecosystem, as they consume dead vegetation on the forest floor. The blazes also open areas up to sunlight and allow plants to grow.

In anticipation, the state forest fire service did prescribed burns of 17,000 acres between January and March, mostly in the Pinelands, Drake said.

The worst wildfire in state history burned 190,000 acres in the Pinelands in April 1963, destroying 185 homes and killing seven people.

Monday's fire in the Pinelands paled in comparison with larger blazes but still stirred memories of a 1992 wildfire that engulfed more than 20,000 acres. That blaze shut down a nuclear plant and sections of the Garden State Parkway.

Nancy Dunnigan, who moved to Chatsworth in the mid-1990s, said the town's older residents still talk about the 1992 blaze.

"You live in a place with a lot of forest fires and you know these things," she said.


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow @darransimon on Twitter.


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