By Christie Duffy
The fires in Beachwood and Berkeley raged over 500 acres of land, sparking emergency evacuations. More than 600 families fled their homes. The wind-driven flames also directly threatened an intermediate school and its 1,100 students.
“When we looked down the street, all we could see was flames shooting over the trees. You could see all the trees were on fire. And the flames were shooting at least 20 feet above the trees,” said Jean Rea of Beachwood.
Peering from the window at school, Rea’s son also saw the smoke and flames — and panicked. Fire officials ordered everybody out.
“My son was in the intermediate school yesterday and had a little bit of a panic attack, but they were real good with them and they evacuated all them to Pine Belt Arena and everything was very calm picking the kids up,” Rea said.
Rea praised firefighters for saving her home from the fast-moving fire. Less than 24 hours later, you can still see and smell smoke rising from the charred forest floor.
Tinder-dry leaves and branches carpet the Pine Barrens. It’s an ideal fuel for a raging fire.
“The Pine Barrens is very sandy soil so it won’t take long for the fuels to dry out again. Spring fire season in New Jersey has historically been a very busy time for the Fire Service and for firefighters,” said New Jersey Forest Fire Service Fire Warden Brian Corvinus.
The Fire Service says yesterday’s high-speed wind gusts fanned the flames in every direction. Firefighters combed through the burned-out woods, seeking to extinguish live embers still lurking beneath the ashes.
Firefighters are also flying overhead, dropping what they call tiny, combustible ping pong balls to start small, controlled burns on the ground, and finally put an end to this fire.
Other forest fires burned in Gloucester and Burlington counties. Firefighters say only a soaking rain will significantly reduce fire hazards, but they say residents here can sleep easy for now.
“I want to assure them that everything is safe, there is no need to worry. We have people there monitoring<" Corvinus said.
The best news? These fires injured no one and caused little property damage. Evacuees were allowed to go back home Thursday night. Officials say the cause of these fires remains under investigation.