At least one firefighter was injured, and at least 24 members of nine families, including at least six children, are now homeless.
Firefighters have been on the scene at 597 Monroe Avenue all night long and are expected to remain at the scene throughout the day.
The fire started around 8:30 p.m. in the rear of one of the townhouses and quickly spread to a second.
Officials say it moved so fast that firefighters at first they couldn't tell which house it started in. Soon, smoke filled the neighborhood, held down by atmospheric conditions that produced a smothering blanket that settled over the area.
Area residents who came outside wondering what was going on were forced to cover their mouths and noses with their clothing.
Two people suffered smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated for a shoulder injury.
About a dozen of nearby homes were evacuated as a precaution. Those residents were allowed to return around 1 a.m.
The blaze destroyed three townhouses before firefighters brought it under control.
Officials believe the fire started when a dog knocked over a candle.
The Red Cross is helping relocate displaced residents and crews early Wednesday demolished what was left of the structures.
Toiletries and clothing donations for the families (including children and seniors) can be delivered daily from 10 am - 2 pm to the 2nd Macedonia Church at 1251 Fairmount Avenue.
Financial donations can be made to: "January Elizabeth Fire Fund"
c/o Charlene Mason-Reese
Director Health & Human Services
Elizabeth City Hall
50 Winfield Scott Plaza
Elizabeth, NJ 07201
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