Wildfire in South Jersey’s Wharton State Forest burns at least 13,500 acres and forces multiple closures – CBS Philly

WHARTON STATE FOREST, NJ (CBS) — Crews are fighting fire with fire as they work to contain a massive wildfire in the Wharton State Forest in Burlington and Atlantic counties. The fire started around 10 a.m. Sunday in Burlington County and has reached 13,500 acres Tuesday, the New Jersey Forest Fire Department said.

The fire is 85% contained.

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“I saw the smoke rising and spinning like an orange color. It looked like a scene from a movie like the end of the world,” said Andrew Schmehl from Shamong.

Thick plumes of smoke could be seen in the air in South Jersey on Monday.

Firefighters are actively fighting the Mullica River Fire, which is rapidly spreading through the Wharton State Forest.

The crew escorted Eyewitness News back into the forest for a closer look at the firefight. At one point, the fire was moments from devastating Paradise Lakes Campground.

Owner Scott Miller says he got the startling call.

“And say, ‘Listen, we’ve got a big fire. It’s coming your way and can you get your people out?’” Miller said.

Miller endlessly thanked the crews for saving his life and business.

“It’s scary because if it jumped there we could have been caught, but these guys fought it off. We owe Forest Fire the greatest debt of gratitude in the world,” he said.

Trying to control it wasn’t easy.

Crews say the fire was wind fueled and burned in a remote area that is difficult to access.

“Now we have to worry about trees falling on the road and, worse, falling on our employees who are working. So the dangers certainly increase in the evening,” Miller said.

Greg McLaughlin, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Department, says crews are using an indirect approach to fighting the wildfire, burning out all vegetation around the fire to keep it from spreading in all directions.

“Conditions were dangerous and the fuels were dry and we had to step back and use an indirect attack to contain the fire,” said chief of operations John Earlin Jr.

The fire has struck land in the townships of Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica, located in Burlington and Atlantic counties.

Wildfire breaks out in the Wharton State Forest in Washington Township, New Jersey

McLaughlin said crews worked all afternoon and evening to contain the fire Sunday, but as the wind shifted it pushed the fire east of the Mullica River and then west of the river again.

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“This prompted us to regroup and reassess the situation to move our containment lines to a larger area and that’s why you’re seeing the fire continue to grow in size,” McLaughlin said.

With acres and acres burning and hours of hard work, crews are asking for patience as this has become the largest wildfire in New Jersey since 2007.

The fire safety department is helping to investigate the cause of the fire, but McLaughlin says they have “essentially ruled out natural causes.”

“Most of our wildfires are man-made,” said Shawn M. LaTourette, New Jersey’s environmental protection officer. “Legal bonfires, bonfires that are not fully extinguished, continue to pose a major risk.

STREET FINISHES

  • Batsu Village and all associated hiking and mountain biking trails are closed to visitors.
  • The Atsion recreation area is also closed.
  • Mullica River Campground, Lower Forde Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat docks along Mullica River are closed from Atsion Recreation Area to Batsto Village.

These closures apply until further notice.

Route 206 from Chew Road to Atsion Road and Route 542 from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road were closed but have since reopened.

Pinelands Adventures has since discontinued kayaking and canoeing. Crews are also working to protect 18 buildings within the containment area, including private and government campgrounds and some buildings at a cranberry and blueberry farm.

Motorists driving in the area are being warned to watch for smoke and to be alert for firefighters and fire engines that may be working on the roads.

A total of 50 people were evacuated from campsites and other surrounding areas. Among the evacuees is Jeremy Savo, organizer of the Beardfest music festival.

“Right now we have stages and sound systems, tents, someone’s car, an RV, thousands of dollars worth of music equipment, it’s all there, we can’t go in. Our team is just standing by. We all just went to brunch and just waiting to see what happens because we still have to clean up the festival,” Savo said.

Forest fires are not uncommon New Jerseybut this is a big one, since the Garden State burns an average of about 7,000 acres a year in wildfires, according to the National Weather Service.

People as far away as Galloway Township, which is 22 miles away, reported seeing smoke from the wildfire and ash falling on their cars.

On Monday, officials said about 60 firefighters are battling the blaze.

There are currently no reports of injuries.

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CBS3’s Madeleine Wright and Kerri Corrado contributed to this report.

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