IMAGE: DESTROYED HOMES
Mike Derer  /  AP
At least 13 homes, including these in Barnegat, N.J., have been damaged by the wildfire.
updated 5/16/2007 9:51:19 PM ET 2007-05-17T01:51:19

A rainstorm Wednesday night helped firefighters make progress against a blaze that apparently began when a military jet dropped a flare on a bombing range. Officials were hoping to determine at daybreak whether the blaze had been contained.

The thunderstorm rolled into the region during the early evening, just after high winds associated with the storm pushed the fire eastward toward a highway, jeopardizing the road and thousands of homes east of it.

"All the reports we are getting are that the fire is laying right down," said Bert Plante, a spokesman for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, after the storm began to subside.

The fire, which began Tuesday, sent walls of flames 80 to 100 feet high racing toward senior citizen communities. Elderly residents grabbed their pets and fled.

No deaths or injuries had been attributed to the fire, but at least 13 homes were damaged or destroyed and about 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes along the border between Ocean and Burlington counties. About 115 people were in shelters Wednesday evening, authorities said.

"I didn't grab anything but the cat and myself, and we scrammed," said Helen Sura, who spent a sleepless night with her pet, aptly named Smoky, in a Burger King parking lot.

A portion of the Garden State Parkway, one of the state's main north-south routes, was closed briefly Wednesday because dense smoke made it difficult for motorists to see. It was reopened later in the day.

Lt. Col. James Garcia, a spokesman for the New Jersey Air National Guard, said the fire was believed to have been started Tuesday afternoon with a flare dropped from an F-16 fighter jet. An investigation continued, he said.

The Warren Grove Gunnery Range, about 25 miles north of Atlantic City, was also involved in the accidental strafing in 2004 of an elementary school during a training exercise.

Fires in Southeast, Upper Midwest
Two other major fires were also burning Wednesday in the United States.

Along the Florida-Georgia state line, firefighters were making progress against a blaze that had charred 390 square miles across the two states and forced the evacuation of more than 700 homes. Calm air Wednesday allowed firefighters to strengthen their containment lines, said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

But Harrell said the weather was expected to worsen over the weekend, with strong winds and high temperatures.

In northern Minnesota, some residents chased from their homes by a forest fire on the Gunflint Trail were told they could return. The fire has burned 117 square miles of Minnesota and Canada, and 61 homes and twice as many other structures have been destroyed. But two days of wet, cool weather have helped firefighters get the blaze 55 percent contained on the U.S. side and 20 percent contained in Canada.

"I'm dreading to see the black," said Lorraine Carpenter, whose lost her garage but not her home on Sea Gull Lake. "That is not going to be pretty."

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Video: Ignited by flare

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