A flare dropped from a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 on a training mission may have started a massive wildfire in southern New Jersey that has consumed about 20 square miles of brush and three homes.
"We pop them at a certain altitude over hear so that they burn out before they hit the ground, so we're not sure what happened this time, but that's what the investigation will reveal," Lt. Col. James Garcia, a spokesman, said.
At least 2,500 homes have been evacuated, with some 700 people spending the night in shelters, according to police. Many are seniors who grabbed only their pets and escaped the advancing flames. One woman managed to grab her cat and escape through smoke she says was so thick that she couldn't see her hand in front of her face.
With the dry conditions, strong wind gusts quickly fanned the blaze through the Warren Grove Gunnery Range about 25 miles north of Atlantic City.
The same range was involved when a National Guard jet accidentally strafed an elementary school with large-caliber rounds in 2004 during a training exercise. There was only a janitor in the building at the time.
Firefighters worked overnight to create fire breaks along the Garden State Parkway in effort to contain the blaze, and state police said they would close a portion of the toll road if visibility became dangerously low.
"This fire will not be out until Mother Nature puts it out with a really good rainstorm," Maris Gablinks with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service told CBS station KYW-TV.
Showers and thunderstorms were forecast for Wednesday, but so were 20 mph winds that could spread the flames.
Three other major fires were also burning in the United States on Wednesday.
Along the Florida-Georgia state line, firefighters were making progress against a blaze that had charred 390 square miles across the two states and forced hundreds of people to evacuate homes. "We do believe we have the resources in place to control the fire," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Caldwell said Tuesday.
The wildfire that has raced through the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia and into northern Florida was started by lightning more than a week ago.
In northern Minnesota, residents chased from their homes by a forest fire on the Gunflint Trail were told they would be allowed to return for brief visits starting Thursday. The fire has burned 117 square miles of Minnesota and Canada, and many cabins and smaller structures have been destroyed. But two days of wet, cool weather have helped firefighters get the blaze 50 percent contained on the U.S. side.
"I'm dreading to see the black," said Lorraine Carpenter, whose garage was lost but home on Sea Gull Lake survived when the fire burned through the surrounding forest. "That is not going to be pretty."
Also, the Promontory Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests on and below the Mogollon Rim in Arizona has burned 1100 acres. Southerly winds pushed the fire across established lines above the Rim. Crews and dozers worked throughout the day building lines to contain spot fires.
Twelve to 15 homes were heavily damaged in Ocean County, N.J., said Forest Fire Service assistant division warden Chris Irick.
Helen Sura, who evacuated a housing development, said she and her cat, aptly named Smoky, spent a sleepless night in her car in a Burger King parking lot.
"I didn't grab anything but the cat and myself, and we scrammed," she said.
Stan Wesolowski of Barnegat also fled the flames.
"It looked like big black clouds, lit up with orange fire, 40, 50 feet in the air, coming right toward you," he said. "It was a wall of flames coming right down the street."