Fire causes evacuations, shuts down parkway

Monday, June 3, 2002

BERKELEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- A forest fire burned across more than 1,000 acres near a state park on Sunday, threatening hundreds of homes and shutting down a 24-mile stretch of one of the state's busiest highways.

By nightfall, state forest fire officials said they had stopped the fire from moving forward. One house was engulfed in flames, and nine were damaged. At the fire's peak, 500 homes were evacuated.

State police said the Garden State Parkway was closed along the east side of Double Trouble State Park, and several local roads also were shut down.

Berkeley Township Police evacuated the town's Pinewald section, sending residents to a school building. By early evening, fire officials said the main threat was that the flames were burning toward nearby Beachwood.

"We were working in the backyard and we saw all this smoke out there," said Geri Morris, wife of Beachwood Mayor Harold Morris. "My niece called from the back of Beachwood and said, 'Everything's turning black."'

The Crystal Lake Heathcare and Rehab Center in Bayville evacuated vulnerable residents, including those with chronic health problems, officials said.

Smoke from the backfires was likely to keep the road closed through the night, officials said. Gov. James E. McGreevey, who visited the fire command center Sunday evening, said he was hopeful the road could be reopened.

by 5 a.m.

The fire started about 1 p.m. near a cranberry bog, and had spread through 1,000 acres around Double Trouble State Park by evening, said Horace Somes, division fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

Firefighters set backfires -- controlled fires that burn away the brush that could fuel the larger blaze -- around the perimeter to contain the main body of the fire. Including the backfires, they expected that between 1,500 and 1,600 acres would be consumed.

Firefighters' efforts were hindered by 30 mph wind gusts and drought conditions. They initially tried to contain the flames but eventually had to fall back, said Horace Somes, division fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

"May was an average rainfall month, but on top of that we had 12 months of dryness," he said. "We have a fire on our hands we can't fight with normal attack."

About 60 state firefighters and 100 volunteers battled the blaze, using at least three helicopters. A state forest fire crewman suffered a minor injury.

The fire was in central New Jersey near the coast about 50 miles northeast of Atlantic City. The parkway in the area is usually packed on summer weekends with people visiting the shore.

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