A brush fire that began in Lakewood and spread across the Brick border Sunday afternoon grew into a major forest fire by the evening, damaging 30 homes and buildings and forcing the closure of the Garden State Parkway.
The fire’s footprint was less than a quarter of a football field when first reported about 1 p.m. near Airport Road and Cedarbridge Avenue in Lakewood, officials said. It jumped across Airport Road and spread to nearby buildings before crossing the Parkway, Lakewood police Capt. Steve Allaire told The Lakewood Scoop.
A neighborhood of homes was temporarily evacuated, and the parkway was eventually closed in both directions from Exit 82 to Exit 91 as smoke enveloped the area and detoured traffic jammed local roads for hours. (The Parkway lanes were reopened to traffic at about 9:30 p.m.)
Aided by high winds and low humidity, the fire had spread to 170 acres by 10:30 p.m., according to the the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
It remained an active fire Sunday night, and firefighters were expected to be at the scene and in the area all night and into Monday, fire officials said.
At about 8 p.m., Cristen Baracia and her daughter Madison were outside of their home, watching nervously as smoke filled the night sky.
“I feel like right now it’s far enough away, but when we saw the planes earlier, that was a little nerve wracking,” Cristen said. They live in a neighborhood off Shorrock Street, on the south side of Route 70, not far from where flames threatened a strip of stores.
If they had to evacuate, they would just flee, and not worry about their home. “Things can be replaced, people can’t,” Cristen said.
Brick police announced evacuations in the Brick Lake Park area and several stores and a hotel along Route 70 at about 4 p.m. At about 6:30 p.m., police alerted residents they could return to their homes. Brick Mayor John Ducey told local media that 29 homes were damaged in Brick Lake Park, three that were uninhabitable.
One firefighter was injured and was in critical condition Sunday evening.
Firefighters from all over northern Ocean County and some from Monmouth County were on scene, and joined by the state Forest Fire Service.
An office building was damaged completely while another sustained partial damage. Hundreds of people were evacuated from homes and commercial buildings along the fire’s path, Maris Gabliks, a spokesman for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said earlier Sunday.
At the height of the fire, two helicopters and an airplane that could drop water circled over the fire, making several passes, with one helicopter lugging a large bucket for dropping water on such fires. Footage from social media showed one scooping water from nearby Lake Riviera.
For over an hour, from about 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., heavy plumes of smoke, alternating white and black, blew eastward over Brick and across Route 70 toward the ocean. They would subside, then roar into the sky moments later.
Roni Anderson, who lives on Cedar Bridge Avenue, watched in amazement as a helicopter hovered for hours, making passes over the fire all afternoon. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said.
Her husband, John Anderson, drove home from work in Monmouth County at the height of the fire, thinking they would have to evacuate. He couldn’t even drive into his neighborhood, he said. John parked his car at a store, walked home and the two packed their other vehicle with pictures and important documents in case they had to leave.
“Just so that we could go somewhere tonight — with things that can’t be replaced,” Roni said. The car was packed at 9 p.m., but they had not left, as they anxiously watched the news and awaited word from authorities.
Low humidity around 20% and winds near 40 miles per hour have presented a challenge for firefighters, the National Weather Service in Mount Holly warned Sunday afternoon. The weather service issued a “red flag warning” that conditions in the region presented a threat of fires, particularly Sunday and continuing into Monday.
New Jersey has been without significant rainfall since March 1, said AccuWeather meteorologist Matt Greene. A four-day warmup that brought temperatures into the 60s concluded Friday.
Greene said rain is not in the forecast until Tuesday.
The weather service advisory recommends people avoid outdoor burning, take care with equipment that may cause sparks and do not “casually” discard cigarettes or matches.