New Jersey Forest Fires Force Evacuations, School Closure

The first fire broke out in Berkeley and consumed about half a square mile, and four others cropped up later in the day

Firefighters in New Jersey battled five forest fires Thursday in Ocean County, including one that forced hundreds of homes to be evacuated and another that torched more than 500 acres.

The first fire began Thursday morning at Grand Central Parkway and Berkeley Avenue near the Berkeley Township border Thursday morning. The blaze spread rapidly amid high winds, torching more than 300 acres and threatening nearby homes and buildings. Firefighters were able to contain the half-square-mile blaze by Thursday night, and were allowing residents to return after evacuating 620 homes earlier in the day.

Berkeley police said some homes were damaged by the fire, but none had been completely lost. Authorities say residents should expect smoky conditions for the next day or two. 

Toms River Intermediate South, a middle school, was closed early after it was evacuated as a precaution. The district said the students were safe, and all schools are expected to open as scheduled Friday. 

No injuries were reported. 

Several homes in the path of the blaze were surrounded with pyro-suppression units to protect them, according to Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato. Some residents were asked to turn on their yard sprinklers as firefighters tried to tackle the fire.

Melissa Masker described heavy smoke and giant flames that leaped above the treetops. She snapped a photo of the blaze and says that as she took it she could feel the heat of the fire. 

A number of residents on Berkeley Avenue near Pine Street packed their cars and emptied their garages in case they were told to leave.

While crews were battling that blaze, four other brush fires cropped up in Ocean County, officials say. The largest, in Franklin Township, chewed through 569 acres, about nine-tenths of a square mile, officials said, and was still burning late Thursday. The blaze was not threatening any homes, however, and no evacuations were ordered. It's not clear how much of that fire was contained.

A second fire in Berkeley broke out about five miles from the initial blaze Thursday afternoon, firefighters say. 

Two smaller fires in Lacey and Jackson were reported Thursday, but both were extinguished.

Forecasters had issued a fire weather watch through Thursday evening, warning that the combination of low humidity and strong winds could spread any brush fires that develop.

One witness captured the first fire in Berkeley before it spread.  

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