Barnegat wildfire sparked by “dry lightning’; new fire at base weapons range

Barnegat wildfire sparked by “dry lightning’; new fire at base weapons range

28 June 2010

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USA — The simmering forest fire that has burned 890 acres in western Barnegat near Warren Grove was ignited by a lightning strike — a rarity in New Jersey, state fire officials say — and they were hopeful that predicted thunderstorms could dampen forests after an unusually dry June.

“It is extremely hot, and the crews are working very hard, 12-hour shifts, and they will be out again tonight,” said Shawn Judy, a section warden and the incident commander for the state Forest Fire Service. “Our people in the fire towers are talking about thunderstorms and they have laptops (to update forecasts). But thunderstorms in New Jersey this time of year, you might get an inch of rain in one spot, a tenth in another.”

So-called dry lightning is a frequent culprit in forest fires of the mountainous West, much less so in New Jersey. But it appears that’s what happened when a line of powerful thunderstorms swept across the Pine Barrens Thursday afternoon, leaving a shattered pine tree smoldering for two days before the fire erupted shortly after noon Saturday, said Bert Plante, division fire warden with the state Forest Fire Service.

Delayed ignition “is pretty common for a lightning strike.”

“They will smolder inside the tree for a couple of days before flaring up,” Plante said. “They’re not real common in New Jersey. But that’s what happened Thursday; all the rain fell down by the Mullica River, but there were dozens of strikes up in that area” of the fire, as evidenced on National Weather Service lightning data maps, he said.

Plante and Judy said the fire was tracked back to the pine tree by looking at burn patterns in the woods. “It was completely inaccessible, several hundred feet in from a motorcycle trail,” Judy said.

Fire safety has been much on the mind of Barnegat residents since the May 2007 wildfire that destroyed five homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate. The fire was farther west in a more remote section but authorities still took care to advise 28 homeowners in the Cedar Bridge area, said township Administrator David Breeden. No one had to leave their homes, he said.

“We have a lot of respect for the fire service and really appreciate all they do,” Breeden said.

The fire was declared contained between Warren Grove village and Route 72, west of Route 539, and about 30 state firefighters and 15 from local volunteers companies worked on the blaze Monday, Plante said. Firefighters from Pinewood Estates, Bamber, Waretwon and Lanoka Harbor were among those who assisted, and on Monday the Manitou Park company brought in its converted 2.5 ton military truck, he said.

Although conditions are unusually dry in the forest, water levels are still up in a swamp bordering the fire, which is helping to keep it contained.

“We’ve transitioned into a mop-up stage,” Judy said shortly after 4 p.m. Monday.

Firefighters kept a close eye on the fire as hot gusty winds swept the region, fanning another blaze that erupted at midday Monday. That brush fire on the weapons ranges at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst burned through the day as firefighters set backfires to keep the blaze contained within the range impact area, Plante said.

The base fire department called on the state Forest Fire Service for help from a few brush trucks and an observation helicopter to reconnoiter the remote area where live ammunition lands in the forest.

“It’s about 120 to 140 acres. . . . Because of the nasty conditions back there (with live ordnance) we’re going to set some backfires and let it burn out,” Plante said.

The fire was on the south side of the range area about 1 1/2 miles north of Route 70, he said.

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