WHARTON STATE FOREST, NJ (CBS) — Crews are fighting fire with fire as they work to contain a massive wildfire at Wharton State Forest in Burlington and Atlantic Counties. The fire began around 10 am Sunday in Burlington County and has reached 12,000 acres in size as of Monday, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service says. The fire is 70% contained.
Officials with the New Jersey Forest Fire service provided an update on the fire’s containment Monday afternoon.
WILDFIRE UPDATE: Wharton State Forest – Mullica River Fire @njdepforestfire is making substantial progress in containing a wildfire in Wharton State Forest – Washington, Shamong, Hammonton & Mullica Townships – which has reached 12,000 acres in size and is 70% contained. pic.twitter.com/Ot7irTke7v
— New Jersey Forest Fire Service (@njdepforestfire) June 20, 2022
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New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin says crews are taking an indirect approach to battle the wildfire by burning out all the vegetation around the fire so it cannot spread any further in all directions.
They decided to take an indirect approach because the fire started in a remote location with poor access. Dry and windy weather conditions also impacted crews’ attack strategy.
“Conditions were dangerous and the fuels were dry and we had to step back and use an indirect attack to be able to contain the fire,” Incident commander John Earlin Jr. said.
The fire has impacted land in Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica Townships, which are in Burlington and Atlantic Counties.
The wildfire at Wharton State Forest has grown to 7,200 acres and is 45% contained, per @njdepforestfire. This huge column of smoke is the result of firefighters burning vegetation near the wildfire so it doesn’t become more fuel. pic.twitter.com/IoGeB0Z2Xn
— Madeleine Wright (@MWrightReports) June 20, 2022
McLaughlin says as crews worked through the afternoon and evening to contain the fire, the wind shifted pushing the fire east of the Mullica River and then again west of the river.
“This caused us to regroup again and reassess the situation to move our containment lines out to a larger area and this is why you see the fire continue to grow in size,” McLaughlin said.
He says the fire consumed 11,000 acres and expects the fire will be at 15,000 acres when complete.
Officials say it’s expected to become the largest wildfire in the Garden State since 2007, fueled by strong winds and dry conditions.
Crews are expecting to have their containment strengthened sometime Monday night, but 100% containment isn’t expected until Tuesday or Wednesday.
“So I would say toward the end of this evening, possibly by midnight tonight, we’re hoping to have our containment strengthened, but I don’t know that we would be able to go to 100% containment until sometime tomorrow or Wednesday Depending on whether we get precipitation or not,” McLaughlin said.
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The Division of Fire Safety is assisting in the investigation into the cause of the fire, but McLaughlin says they have “essentially ruled out natural causes.”
“The majority of our forest fires are human-caused,” Shawn M. LaTourette, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Environmental Protection, said. “Legal campfires, campfires that are not fully extinguished continue to pose a great risk.
- Route 206 – from Chew Road to Atsion Road
- Route 542 – from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road
- Batsto Village and all associated hiking and mountain bike trails are closed to visitors.
- The Atsion Recreation Area is also closed.
- The Mullica River Campground, Lower Forde Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat launches along the Mullica River are closed from the Atsion Recreation Area to Batsto Village.
These closures will remain in effect until further notice.
Meanwhile, Pinelands Adventures has suspended kayak and canoe trips. Crews are also working to protect 18 structures within the containment area including private and state campgrounds and some buildings on a cranberry and blueberry farm.
A total of 50 people have been evacuated from campgrounds and other surrounding areas. Jeremy Savo, an organizer of a music festival called Beardfest is among the evacuees.
“Right now, we have stages and sound systems, tents, someone’s car, an RV like, thousands of dollars of music equipment, it’s all there, we can’t get in. Our team is just standing by. We all just went out to brunch, just waiting to see what happens because we still have to clean up the festival,” Savo said.
Wildfires aren’t uncommon in New Jerseybut this is a large one as the Graden State averages approximately 7,000 acres burned per year in wildfires.
Update on the Wharton State Forest Fire, which now tops 7200 acres. Containment is increasing, though acreage burned will also likely increase. Wildfires aren’t uncommon in NJ, but this is a large one, as for reference NJ averages ~7000 acres per year in wildfires. #NJwx https://t.co/nbZKqsv6dG
— NWS Mount Holly (@NWS_MountHolly) June 20, 2022
People as far away as Galloway Township, which is 22 miles away, reported seeing smoke from the wildfire and ash falling on their cars.
Approximately 60 firefighters are fighting the blaze.
There are no reports of any injuries at this time.
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CBS3’s Madeleine Wright contributed to this report.