Huge N.J. forest fire expands to 11,000 acres, could be largest wildfire in 15 years

Author: By Jeff Goldman | NJ Advance Media for
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Huge N.J. forest fire expands to 11,000 acres, could be largest wildfire in 15 years

Updated: Jun. 21, 2022, 12:25 p.m. | Published: Jun. 20, 2022, 11:25 a.m.

Firefighters on Monday continue to battle a massive forest fire in Wharton State Forest that has grown to 11,000 acres but is now 50% contained.

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service said backfiring operations will continue all day to help contain the blaze in the Pine Barrens, which is burning in Washington, Shamong, Hammonton, and Mullica townships in South Jersey.

The fire could consume as much as 15,000 acres before it is fully under control, said Greg McLaughlin, the Chief of the NJ Forest Fire Service at a Monday afternoon press conference.

No one has been hurt, though 50 people who aren’t residents have been evacuated from the area. Two roads remain closed, Route 206 from Chew Road to Atsion Road and Route 542 from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road. The fire’s cause remains under investigation, though natural cause have been ruled out, officials said.

“We can be looking at the largest forest fire in New Jersey in 15 years,” state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Shawn LaTourette said.

The last fire that was at least 15,000 acres was a 2007 blaze that consumed 17,000 acres of woods in southern Ocean and Burlington counties, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate.

Forecasters say Monday’s weather conditions — still dry but less windy than Sunday — should help firefighters somewhat.

Wharton State Forest fire
At least 7,200 acres at Wharton State Forest in South Jersey have burned as of late Monday morning since a fire broke out on Sunday, June 19, 2022.New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

“The winds are definitely not as bad as (Sunday),” said Jonathan O’Brien of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. “(Sunday) was the kind of day that favors rapid fire spread with strong, gusty northwest winds.”

No rain is in the forecast for the rest of the day or at night but there’s a chance of showers Tuesday night, forecasters say.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday evening rain could be “a huge boost.”

Eighteen structures are threatened; six were in jeopardy when officials provided their previous update at 11 p.m Sunday. Volunteer fire departments from Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties are protecting those buildings.

Murphy also said it appears there is “no threat to lives or private property.”

Batsto Village and all associated hiking and mountain bike trails are closed to visitors. The Mullica River Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat launches along the Mullica River are closed from the Atsion Recreation Area to Batsto Village. Pinelands Adventures has suspended kayak and canoe trips.

Some area police departments, including Galloway, have told residents that they might find ash around their towns.

“At this time, we know that there is a strong odor of wood burning present throughout town, similar to one you would have when standing adjacent to a campfire,” Galloway police said Monday.

The smell of smoke was present at least 40 miles away in Atlantic City and Brigantine Monday morning, with a haze cast over the Jersey Shore towns.

At 7:25 p.m. Sunday, the fire had burned about 600 acres and was 10% contained. A new update on the fire should be available around 10:30 a.m. Monday, officials said. By 11 p.m. it had grown to 2,100 acres but was 20% contained.

According to the state parks department, Wharton is the state’s largest single tract of land within the New Jersey State Park System, occupying 122,800 acres of pine forest, meadows, lakes and rivers within the Pinelands National Reserve in Burlington and Atlantic counties.

The forest fire is currently the largest in New Jersey since the Spring Hill wildfire in Penn State Forest in Burlington County burned more than 11,000 acres in the spring of 2019.

Murphy on Monday praised the “heroic work” by state firefighters, as well as county and local responders.

“This is increasingly, sadly, the world we’re in, with climate change,” Murphy said during his regular television show on News 12 New Jersey. “This went from 2,000 acres to 11,000 in a very short amount of time.”

NJ Advance Media freelance photographer Dave Hernandez and staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.