Editor's Note (June 21, 2022, 12:08 p.m.): This story is no longer being updated. For updates on the suspected cause and firefight click here.
New Jersey firefighters have spent three days now battling a major wildfire in the Wharton State Forest in Burlington County and a small part of Atlantic County. And officials say they ruled out a natural cause starting the blaze.
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.
As of early Monday evening, the fire has spread to 12,000 acres in size and was 70% contained, which is up from 20% as of Sunday night, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
By Tuesday morning, a layer of thick white smoke could be seen covering the air above the burning forest.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the fire could spread to the largest wildfire in the Garden State in 15 years.
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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.
No injuries have been reported though around 50 campers were evacuated.
The Atsion Recreation Area, Lower Forde Campground, Mullica River Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat launches along the Mullica River were closed Monday due to the fire. Pinelands Adventures also suspended kayak and canoe trips.
By late Monday morning up to 18 structures were threatened by flames, the forest fire service said. Crews took preventative measures to keep the flames from getting to any buildings, officials said.
As firefighters battled the flames, Route 206 from Chew Road to Atsion Road and Route 542 from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road remained closed as of Tuesday morning. "Batsto Village and all associated hiking and mountain bike trails are closed to visitors," the forest fire service said.
Folks down the Jersey Shore reported hazy skies and the smell of smoke Monday afternoon.
McLaughlin said that they had ruled out "natural causes," but had no cause yet for the fire. Once a cause is determined, charges could be filed, officials said.
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.