Firefighters battle 600-acre Burlington Co. brush fire

April 9, 2012 1:46:40 PM PDT
A potent combination of dry conditions and high winds helped to whip up a second major brush fire in southern New Jersey in the last three days, this time engulfing several hundred acres in Burlington County and threatening two dozen homes Monday.

The blaze began before 1 a.m. in the towns of Tabernacle and Woodland, and by midmorning Monday it had extended across 600 acres. State officials expected the fire to consume 1,000 acres before it was finished.

Elaine and Nick Sama of Sooy Place Rd. in Woodland Township, N.J. had about 10 of their 18 acres blackened by the fire. Nick took a photo as the trees burned on the other side of their backyard fence.

"It was very horrifying," Nick told Action News. "It was too close for comfort. It was right behind our home. I mean it was literally behind our home."

"I'm just worried to death," said Elaine. "I made sure we have an evacuation plan in effect and it's just frightening because you don't know what to take."

While firefighters raced to catch up with the fire as it hop-scotched through their neighborhood, the Samas and a number of others may have had their homes saved by fire lines bulldozed around their properties by the Forest Fire Service.

There's no arguing control lines work. Action News got pictures of one path cut by bulldozers Monday morning. The fire blew all the way through the area but stopped right at the line.

"Basically the idea is by removing any potential fuel for the fire to consume, you put the fire out," explained Assistant Division Warden Mike Achey.

Residents in this area have been keeping a close eye on the fire as it zigzags through Tabernacle and Woodland Twp.

"Everybody's concerned, everybody sees it closely and everybody's watching the wind and the weather and trying to get information," said Mike Rudderow of Tabernacle.

"The closer the smoke gets to more we're ready to just get out," said David Detata of Tabernacle.

About 25 homes were considered threatened by the fire, and firefighters lit a backfire in an attempt to keep the blaze away, said assistant state Fire Warden Steve Maurer. By late morning about 10 percent of the fire had been contained and none of the homes had been damaged, Maurer said.

This is the second major brush fire in southern New Jersey in less than a week. Last week fires burned 400 acres in Winslow Township, about 20 miles southwest of Monday's blaze. Officials have said those likely were set deliberately.

Other fires during the weekend destroyed buildings across the state, from the shore (Beach Haven) to the northern (Wantage) and northeast. Two people were killed in a house fire in Florence Township, Burlington County, early Sunday.

The cause of Monday's fire was unknown pending further investigation, but Maurer said brush fires are not unusual for this time of year. He said the unusually dry weather during the last several weeks combined with high winds gusting above 40 mph helped the fire spread rapidly.

"It can be warm and dry if there's no wind and the likelihood of a large fire is very small," Maurer said. "But when you throw wind into the equation, all bets are off."

Nancy McGinnis, who owns a deli near the area affected by the fire, said fires aren't uncommon in the rural area.

"This kind of thing happens every year around here," she said. "But I still worry because I have some customers who might have to evacuate. It's very scary."