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2,000 Acres Burn in Fire in a New Jersey State Forest

Historical Articles

From The New York Times

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN Published: July 30, 1997

With a quote at the end from then Asst Chief Anthony Tomasco.

Click read more for full article.

A forest fire swept across more than 2,000 acres of Wharton State Forest in southern New Jersey yesterday, forcing more than 125 people from their homes in one village, officials said. Two minor injuries were reported.

Scores of firefighters from the State Forest Fire Service struggled through the night and into this morning to contain the swift-moving blaze. Homes were protected by hundreds of local firefighters and fire lines and were believed to be out of danger.

The fire started shortly before 4 P.M. in an area of Wharton State Forest north of the historic town of Batsto in Atlantic County and south of the Mullica River. Officials said they did not know how the fire started, and probably would not learn the cause until it had been put out.

But officials eliminated two common causes of fires. ''We know it's not a train fire because no railroad track runs through there,'' said Alfred Smith, a fire warden. ''And we know it's not a structure fire because there are no houses in there.''

The fire area is part of 1,700 square miles of Pine Barrens that stretch generally from the Fort Dix Military Reservation to the southern reaches of the state. The pine forests have burned often over the years.

The fine, sandy ground, arid from a lack of rain, and strong winds -- most blowing northwest but with frequent changes in direction -- helped the fire spread quickly.

''The wind is our biggest problem,'' Mr. Smith said. ''The wind drives the fire anywhere that there is fuel. We had some rain, but the rain was not enough. We had extremely dry conditions.''

Smoke was first spotted from the Blue Anchor fire tower in neighboring Camden County, a warden with the Forest Fire Service said.

For several hours, the blaze was battled both on land and by air, as four planes and two helicopters dropped water. Nightfall forced the aircraft to stop their flights, but ground crews continued the fight with off-road pumping vehicles.

The 125 people who were evacuated from their homes in Totem Village, the residential area closest to the fire, found shelter with friends and relatives.

While firefighters continued to guard the homes, by 10 P.M. officials said the property was not in danger. The smoke condition, however, worsened throughout the night.

Some residents who fled left their sprinklers running, hoping to protect their homes. Bicycles lay in the front yards of some of the abandoned homes.

White ashes were carried as far as 30 miles by the winds. Closer to the fire, billows of pink smoke drifted above the eerie red glow of the flames.

''This is the worst excitement that has ever been around here,'' Diana Harris, who has lived in Totem Village for 26 years, said last night. ''I'm ready to leave.''

A Red Cross official, Suzanne Forrest, said a woman in the Totem Village area was taken to Kessler Memorial Hospital in Hammonton and treated for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was reported to have suffered heat exhaustion.

Firefighters with the State Forest Fire Service worked in 40 teams of three to five. They were supported by 20 power wagons, special off-road vehicles that carry up to 250 gallons of water. Makeshift ponds, canvas structures filled with water to refill the trucks, were set up in the streets.

At 11:30 P.M., Anthony Tomasco, assistant chief of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department, said the fire was burning within the forest about a half-mile from Totem Village. By midnight, the fire was still out of control, but the winds had died down.

In all, about 400 firefighters from four surrounding counties -- Atlantic, Burlington, Camden and Ocean -- helped battle the blaze.
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