An illegal campfire deep in the woods of the Pine Barrens is being investigated as the possible cause of the massive forest fire in New Jersey, officials said Tuesday.
After three days battling the major wildfire in the Wharton State Forest, firefighters have made "substantial progress" in containing the flames, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service said.
The wildfire has burned 13,500 acres of the state forest in Burlington County and a small part of Atlantic County. According to the state forest fire service, as of late Tuesday morning, the fire is 85% contained.
While officials said they are confident they can keep it from substantial spread, residents across South Jersey can expect to see smoke for the next week as firefighters continue to put out hotspots.
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Photos: Massive NJ Wildfire is State's 2nd Largest Since 2007
Route 206 from Chew Road to Atsion Road and Route 542 from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road reopened late Tuesday morning. "Batsto Village, Atsion Recreation Area and all associated hiking and mountain bike trails remain closed to visitors," the forest fire service said.
The Atsion Recreation Area, Lower Forde Campground, Mullica River Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat launches along the Mullica River closed Monday due to the fire. Pinelands Adventures also suspended kayak and canoe trips.
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The forest fire service said the blaze is the second largest forest fire in the Garden State since 2007.
By Tuesday morning, a layer of thick white smoke could be seen covering the air above the burning forest.
The fire, which was being fueled by dry and breezy conditions, began Sunday morning just after 6 a.m. in a remote section of the forest along the Mullica River in the Pine Barrens area. Monday morning, thick white smoke and flames could be seen as firefighters continued a backfiring operation to contain the blaze, which spanned areas of Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica townships.
"Fight fire with fire," is how New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin described the firefight early Monday afternoon.
Fire officials said during a press conference Tuesday that an illegal fire in the woods, a campfire, is under investigation as the possible cause of the far-spreading flames.
New Jersey's “General Forest Fire Act" requires that before having any fire within a forested area, citizens must contact the nearest forest fire service office to request a permit. They may also need a permit from the local fire official or NJ Division of Fire Safety.
McLaughlin said once the cause is officially determined, charges could be filed.
McLaughlin said he expected to fire to spread to 15,000 acres before being complete. He said it could be until Wednesday that the fire was finally contained, but it could happen earlier if rain occurs.
Eighteen structures were threatened by the flames, the forest fire service said Tuesday. No injuries have been reported though around 50 campers were evacuated.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service defines a wildfire as an uncontrolled fire burning the different types of vegetation that cover the land. A wildfire is considered a “major wildfire” when it exceeds 100 acres in size.