New Jersey forest fire burns half a square mile

High winds and dry conditions on Thursday provided fuel for several New Jersey forest fires, including one that forced the evacuation of more than 600 homes and the early closure of a school.

Authorities had reported no injuries by early evening.

Some structures had minor damage from one fire that broke out just before noon east of the Garden State Parkway in a central coastal area about 45 miles south of New York City.

Berkeley Township police said the fire had burned more than half a square mile and was about 30 percent contained by early evening. Authorities said 620 homes in Berkeley Township were evacuated as a precaution. Some residents were being allowed back into their homes as evening approached.

Winds in the area were sustained at 20 to 25 mph, with gusts of 35 to 40 mph. Combined with dry conditions in much of the state, the winds led state officials to ban outdoor fires Thursday.

"April is fire month in New Jersey, and the conditions today were appropriate for a fast spreading wildfire," said Greg McLaughlin, division warden with the state Forest Fire Service.

Toms River Intermediate South school closed early as a precaution, and students were taken to Pine Belt Arena in Toms River. The district said they were sent home on their normal bus routes. The school was later used as a command post for officials coordinating firefighting efforts.

Dozens of firefighters were battling the blaze on the ground, supplemented by three bulldozers building walls to stop the spread of flames and several helicopters and firefighting planes dropping water on the fire.

By late afternoon, News 12 New Jersey reported that another fire could be seen burning about five miles away, on the west side of the Parkway. McLaughlin said he was waiting for information on the fire but that it didn't appear to be in the path of the earlier fire. The cause of both fires was under investigation.

At the same time, firefighters battled the second day of a forest fire in Downe Township in Cumberland County, at the far southern end of the state.

That fire, in the Bevans Wildlife Management Area, was 50 percent contained by late in the day, and firefighters were hopeful it wouldn't spread any further. No homes or other buildings were in the immediate area of the fire, which had burned nearly 2½ square miles.


Wayne Parry can be reached at