Evacuees Start to Assess Fire Damage
in New Jersey
By JILL P. CAPUZZO
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
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
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
“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
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.