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Massive Berkeley Fires Contained, But Still Burning; Schools, Roads Open

Residents return home

Massive forest fires that swept through the Pinewald section of Berkeley Township in Ocean County, N.J. were contained but still burning Friday morning, as residents returned home and area schools and roads were open.

While the 307-acre fire was contained, a heavy police and fire presence lingered through the night while a second fire, at Dover Road, burned much of 150 acres.

All roadways were opened, but police warned drivers Friday that "a smoke condition is present throughout the area which could affect visibility" as fire crews and police personnel actively worked to extinguish both fires.

Pinewald-Keswick Road, where much of the fire threatened homes, was re-opened.

Fire officials earlier Thursday night allowed some Pinewald residents to return home after they evacuated hours earlier and sought shelter from the wind-aided fire that destroyed over 307 acres.

They were to reassess the status of those still displaced by early Friday, according to the police department.

Click here to see how Patch captured the devastation on video, showing the chaos that ensued as the blaze ripped through the township.

Residents who live on the south side of Northern Boulevard and on Grand Central Parkway South of the Northern Boulevard intersection were being allowed to return home, according to the Berkeley Township Police Department.
  
Residents who were still displaced could use the Berkeley branch of the Ocean County Library on Station Road or the Toms River branch on Washington Street as shelters.

A fire warden in the Lakewood fire tower first spotted the 307-acre fire - a column of thick black smoke - around noon, said Steve Holmes, Assistant State Fire Warden for the state Forest Fire Service.

"Which tells us it's burning very fast," Holmes said. "We knew we had a good fire."

Residents along Northern Boulevard and several surrounding streets in Pinewald were evacuated. The blaze did not reach any houses, but Holmes said a shed was destroyed.

Homes and other buildings from Northern to Maryland streets were evacuated once the raging, wind-aided blaze was reported around 12 noon.

Several homes sustained some damage, and a shed melted and burned. But no injures were reported.

High wind, low humidity and a dry forest made the blaze a "Class 5 fire," which is the most dangerous type, Berkeley officials said.

The fire spread rapidly, fanned by winds up to 40 miles an hour, low humidity and tinder-dry woods. Local and state firefighters spend much of the afternoon working on a "block" to contain the flames, and even did a controlled "burnout" near the Toms River Intermediate School South South on Pinewald Road, he said.

Smoke wafted through the pines, trees caught on fire and the blaze crept up to a driveway near the school, all part of the burnout, later this afternoon.

Toms River Intermediate South dismissed its students early, and the children were sent to the Pine Belt Arena for shelter. Berkeley schools announced they would not be busing children home immediately because of the fire.

State Police forbid people from getting anywhere near the 307-acre fire, telling people: "The wind can switch at any minute."

"Public safety is our first priority," a state trooper told a reporter.

Massive plumes of smoke filled the air Thursday afternoon while sirens blared. An unidentified woman running down Northern Boulevard, with a cell phone in her ear, yelled at a crowd: "Whose house is on fire?"

Fires in this section of New Jersey are common in the spring and fall, said Holmes, who grew up in Beachwood.

And the harsh, snowy winter didn't reduce the fire risk, because of the extremely permeable sandy soils in the Pine Barrens, he said.

"The sand is almost like beach sand," he said. "It drains very fast. We don't need a drought."

The winds are expected to drop slightly later tonight, which should help with firefighting efforts, he said.

"We are here for the duration," Holmes said. "We are planning on a night shift."

Northern Boulevard residents Robert and Joan Martinez stood in the street outside their home and listened to helicopters thundering overhead, making sweeps over the smoke.

The couple said despite the order to evacuate, they are staying put. They went through this before in 2002. Robert has five hoses and spigots which he said he can use. 

"I've got my hoses," he said. "I'll put them on my roof. We are not leaving this house. They just told me I have to evacuate. I told them we cannot evacuate."
Heywood April 25, 2014 at 09:54 AM
@ grace, being there are no fire hydrants in that area, maybe the homeowner felt he had the better chance to protect his home with his hose.
grace April 25, 2014 at 10:00 AM
@ heywood there you go with the hose joke!!!!
grace April 25, 2014 at 10:02 AM
@* dont keep tempting me to post cause next thing you know my arch enemy will be posting my new total of random stupid posts..and i dont do as i am told ask @ heywood
Brandy the Dog April 25, 2014 at 10:52 AM
∞...
Heywood April 25, 2014 at 11:30 AM
@ grace ~ the hose knows you're up to 4 posts on this topic.

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