'Very near catastrophic': Forest fire that burned 170 acres in New Jersey, critically injured firefighter is 100% contained

Nicolas Fernandes, Thomas P. Costello and Ken Serrano, Asbury Park Press
·3 min read

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The forest fire that burned 170 acres, damaged homes and critically injured a firefighter in New Jersey is 100% contained, according to officials.

The fire started in Lakewood on Sunday afternoon, damaging homes in Brick Lake Park and temporarily shutting down parts of the Garden State Parkway and several highways. A stretch of Route 70 remained closed Monday morning.

The fire's origin has been identified, authorities said, although they have not revealed details, except to rule out that it was part of a prescribed burn. Mop-up efforts were expected to continue into the evening.

A New Jersey Forest Fire Service firefighter was sent to a nearby hospital Sunday and was in critical but stable condition, authorities said. No additional details were released at a Monday news conference.

Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles said the man is a Brick firefighter and works as a public works supervisor for Lakewood. Coles declined to name the man.

It had been about 40 years since the stretch of woods that burned had caught fire, officials said. And that meant lots of fuel for the blaze.

But the New Jersey Forest Fire Service had prepared after hearing fire weather forecasts just as they finished up prescribed burns last week. They added patrols and fully staffed lookout towers, officials said. Two helicopters and a contracted plane were available and eventually put into service to dump water.

Sal Verlingo counts himself among the lucky ones.

Standing outside his home in the Brick Lake Park section of Brick on Monday morning, he said the forest fire burned the exterior of his home — siding and sheathing — but it didn't go much further.

"Me and my wife were home and my son lives around the corner," Verlingo said. "He came over and said, 'We've got to get out of here. It's not getting any better.' So we packed everything up and left. Then it got so bad, so smoky and everything, it was really bad."

After more than 24 hours, firefighters Monday managed to knock down the fire that burned Verlingo's and other homes and critically injured a firefighter.

Lakewood MUA employees look Monday morning, March 15, 2021, for buried utility lines behind an office complex at 150 Airport Road in the township that was destroyed by Sunday's forest fire.
Lakewood MUA employees look Monday morning, March 15, 2021, for buried utility lines behind an office complex at 150 Airport Road in the township that was destroyed by Sunday's forest fire.

The quick response of local firefighters kept the damage to a minimum, said Ray Bukowski, the Department of Environmental Protection's assistant commissioner of natural and historic resources.

"It was a very, very near catastrophic," Bukowski said. "The response was unbelievable."

More from the Asbury Park Press: New Jersey forest fire damages homes

Two mixed-use professional structures were destroyed by the fire, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service said.

The fire reduced one of them, an office building, to a charred shell. Across the street from that building is a circular burned area in a patch of woods that fire investigators were scouring Monday morning.

Firefighters from neighboring communities were called to the scene and a helicopter dumped water on the burning brush.

Brick residents who had to evacuate their homes were able to return by Sunday night, officials said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow reporter Nicolas Fernandes: @nfernandes93

A large forest fire is burning near the Garden State Parkway in Lakewood
A large forest fire is burning near the Garden State Parkway in Lakewood

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: New Jersey forest fire 100% contained as authorities identify origin