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Evacuees Start to Assess Fire Damage in New Jersey

Published: May 18, 2007

BARNEGAT, N.J., May 17 — Two days after fleeing 20-foot flames that licked at their backyards here, residents began returning to their mobile homes Thursday, though some came back to piles of charred rubble where their homes once stood.

Despite warnings that the wildfire was not fully contained, more than 5,000 residents were allowed to return home after Wednesday night’s fast-moving rainstorm helped douse the flames. The fire has burned 14,000 acres of forest since Tuesday, and the authorities believe that it was touched off by a flare from a military jet on a training run.

“We still have some unburned pockets within our perimeters, and we need to make sure they don’t pick up again,” said the state fire warden, Maris Gabliks, noting that high winds threatened to reignite hot spots.

Mr. Gabliks said that 70 percent of the fire was contained on Thursday, and that he expected it to be fully contained by Friday morning.

Although half an inch of rain had helped in suppressing the fire — which had as many as 1,000 people battling it at one point — he said an additional two inches would finish the job.

Mr. Gabliks added that heavy vegetation and logs could be masking smoldering coals, mostly in the developed swath between Routes 539 and 72.

While residents were initially relieved to be returning, it was a bittersweet homecoming. At the Brighton at Barnegat and Pinewood Estates mobile home parks on Route 72, homeowners shared stories of their hurried evacuation as they took in the damage.

“I was afraid to come back,” said Edith Podchaski, a 19-year resident of Brighton at Barnegat. “They told us 15 homes were wiped out, but we didn’t know which ones until we got back here.”

Mrs. Podchaski was relieved to find her mobile home unharmed, but a friend, Lester Balkie, was not as fortunate. Mr. Balkie, an 85-year-old Navy veteran, was struck nearly speechless by the burned rubble at 83 Brighton Road that had been his home.

“It’s been a bad couple of years,” said Mr. Balkie, whose wife died of cancer last fall.

While Mr. Balkie sat in a beach chair nibbling on a cookie, his relatives dug through the black char, trying to find anything of value in the remains of his home of 23 years.

By midday, they had recovered a Navy ring his wife had given him in 1942 and an antique Winchester rifle, part of a collection. Mr. Balkie said the rifle was worth $1,000 before it was burned.

At the Pinewood Estates mobile home park next door, Joe and Ruth Miller were also shaken to find the back half of their trailer home melted away when they returned on Thursday.

“Coming down the road, it didn’t look so bad. Then when we got closer, we were devastated,” Mr. Miller said.

While both mobile home parks cater to people 55 and older, most of the residents are significantly older, and in many cases, in poor health, and being ordered to evacuate in 10 minutes was a challenge. Helen Selwyn said she had just come back from having a cancer biopsy on Tuesday when she was told she had to leave.

“I was able to drive,” Ms. Selwyn said. “I knocked down some mailboxes, but I made it out.”

Three investigations are under way to determine the cause of the fire, which is believed to have started after a flare was dropped from an F-16 onto the Pinelands during a routine exercise at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a training ground for the New Jersey Air National Guard.

Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Reith of the New Jersey Air National Guard announced on Thursday that the Air Force would provide initial emergency relief of up to $25,000 for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

Mr. Gabliks said that residents were being asked to provide photographs of the damage in order to collect relief funds.

If the investigations confirm that the errant flare caused the fire, he said, the Air National Guard would be responsible not only for the damage to the homes, but also for the cost of fighting the fire.



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