The fire, which began Tuesday afternoon on a military bombing range in the South Jersey Pinelands region about 25 miles north of Atlantic City, had charred some 14,000 acres by 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. That's when a line of thunderstorms crossed the area, dumping a half-inch of rain on the fire zone over the next two hours.
By nightfall, Maris Gabliks, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said the blaze was 70 percent contained.
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"We now believe we have turned the corner. The people of the Pinelands are fortunate tonight," said Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
About 500 people who had been evacuated from their homes remained in emergency shelters at area schools overnight, officials said. About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes at the height of the blaze.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported. Five homes in two senior citizen housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed and 13 other homes in the area along the Burlington-Ocean County border were damaged, officials said.
More than 600 firefighters used helicopters, water tanker trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment to contain the fire to an area west of the Garden State Parkway.
Dry conditions and strong winds helped fan the blaze, which soon sent walls of flame racing toward senior citizen communities, where elderly residents grabbed their pets and ran.
"It looked like big black clouds, lit up with orange fire, 40, 50 feet in the air, coming right toward you," said Stan Wesolowski of Barnegat.
"I didn't grab anything but the cat and myself, and we scrammed," said Helen Sura, who evacuated a housing development in Barnegat. She and the cat, the aptly named Smoky, spent a sleepless night in her car in a Burger King parking lot.
"I was freezing because I didn't think to grab a sweater or a blanket," she said. "I figured we'd be back home in a few hours at most."
The fire started about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for bombing practice by military aircraft.
Lt. Col. James Garcia, a spokesman for the New Jersey Air National Guard, said it was believed a flare dropped from one its F-16s may have started the blaze, though an investigation was ongoing.
The range was the same facility from which a National Guard jet accidentally strafed an elementary school with large-caliber rounds in 2004 during a training exercise. In 2001, an errant practice bomb caused a fire that burned more than 1,600 acres of pine forest.
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg complained Wednesday that the military hadn't followed up on safety pledges after the 2004 accident.
"This wildfire shows that the Air National Guard has not followed through on its pledge of increased safety," said Lautenberg, who said he would request a meeting with the Air Force and Air National Guard to address safety issues.
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