LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) - A forest fire near the Jersey Shore that shut down the Garden State Parkway, sent neighbors fleeing and led to a firefighter’s hospitalization in critical condition was “a very, very near catastrophe,” authorities said Monday.
The fire that began Sunday afternoon in Lakewood and jumped the Parkway into Brick Township, eventually burned 167 acres, according to Greg McLaughlin, the state fire warden and chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
By early afternoon Monday, the fire was 75% contained, and authorities expected that percentage to increase as the day wore on. Wet weather expected in the area by Thursday should help extinguish the fire, he said.
Ray Bukowski, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Environmental Protection, called the blaze “a very, very near catastrophe. We were very fortunate in avoiding any more damage that what occurred.”
DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said two mixed-use office buildings were destroyed, along with eight smaller buildings, and additional structures and property were damaged as well. McLaughlin said numerous sheds and fences were damaged, and siding was melted on numerous houses facing the flames, but no homes were uninhabitable, officials said.
The cause of the blaze has not yet been determined, but it appears to have started near Airport Road in an industrial section of Lakewood near the Parkway.
Authorities said the blaze did not start because of controlled burning that the state had been doing earlier this month. That activity, involving small fires set on the floor of wooded areas to burn and eliminate combustible underbrush, had been discontinued for the season in the middle of last week, said Shawn Judy, a fire warden with the forest fire service.
In fact, state officials said they had hired “contract aircraft” to stand by for firefighting operations several days before the blaze broke out, and were prepared to fight it.
But controlled burning had not taken place in the area where Sunday’s fire began for at least 40 years, McLaughlin said.
High winds fanned the flames, and sent burning embers flying into neighboring areas, where they set smaller fires on lawns and even set several fiber mats ablaze on people’s doorsteps more than a mile away.
A firefighter with the Forest Fire Service remained in critical condition Monday in a nearby hospital. Officials would not give the firefighter’s name or release details of what had happened to him or her.
The fire closed the Parkway in both directions for several hours, as well as nearby roadways. The DEP said all evacuees have since been allowed to return to their neighborhoods.
The National Weather Service in Mount Holly on Monday placed most of the state under a fire warning with humidity levels recorded at about 20% in the Lakewood area and winds gusting near 40 miles per hour (64 kph), officials said.
There were 59 brush fires of varying sizes statewide on Sunday during the windy conditions. Several small ones broke out on Monday as well but did not pose significant problems, authorities said.
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