Forest fire evacuees allowed back home

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Chopper 6 HD over the woods fire in the Wharton State Forest near Hammonton, NJ.</span></div>
October 22, 2008 5:44:43 PM PDT
Residents of six homes that were threatened by a forest fire burning in a remote section of the New Jersey Pinelands were allowed to return home Wednesday afternoon as firefighters made slow but steady progress in containing the blaze. Their biggest problem, though, was increasing wind gusts that fanned the flames across southern Jersey even more powerfully than on Tuesday.

Largely because of that, the blaze had engulfed 1,800 acres by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, said Willie Cirone, a spokesman for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

"The wind was a real problem for most of today," he said. "It's more of a smoldering fire now, but there's still plenty of smoke."

Cirone said conditions had improved sufficiently that a handful of residents who had been evacuated on Tuesday afternoon were allowed to return home.

However, he said a section of heavily traveled Route 206 was to remain closed through the night, and a decision on whether to reopen it will be made at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

Firefighters had the blaze about 40 percent contained as of Wednesday morning, and were aided by several factors. One was that part of the area that's now burning had already been burned in a fire last summer, depriving it of fuel to spread quickly.

Another is the lack of heavy development in that section of the Pinelands where Camden, Burlington and Atlantic counties converge.

The blaze began in Waterford Township in Camden County, but quickly spread with 25 mph winds, with gusts reaching 30 mph.

Wednesday's forecast for the area called for winds of 15 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 30.

Two injuries were reported. A fire police officer was hit by a car while directing traffic but declined medical attention, and a firefighter was released from a hospital after experiencing chest pains.

About 150 firefighters were using pumper trucks, helicopters, a firefighting plane, and several bulldozers to battle the blaze.

Aerial drops of water on the blaze resumed early Wednesday afternoon.

Conditions in the area are very dry; the region has not experienced a heavy rain storm in several weeks. However, firefighters may get an assist from a large storm expected to move through New Jersey over the weekend.

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