Mike Derer  /  AP
At least 13 homes, including these in Barnegat, N.J., have been damaged by the wildfire.
updated 5/17/2007 3:18:45 PM ET 2007-05-17T19:18:45

Rain reduced a 22-square-mile wildfire near a bombing range to mostly smoldering brush Thursday, but fire officials warned that the flames could rekindle if the wind picks up.

“A fire this big we’re not going to be able to put out,” said Bert Plante, a division fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. “What we want to do today is push everything deep enough in so that if anything happens, it won’t matter.”

Firefighters were using bulldozers Thursday to plow through smoldering areas and extinguish hot spots.

New Jersey Air National Guard officials said they believe a flare dropped by one of their F-16 fighter jets started the wildfire Tuesday on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of scrub pine used for military bombing practice. Walls of flames 80 to 100 feet high raced toward nearby senior citizen communities as residents grabbed their pets and fled.

Only two minor injuries and no deaths had been reported by Thursday, but five homes in two senior citizen housing developments in Barnegat were destroyed, and 13 homes along the line separating Ocean and Burlington counties were damaged, officials said. About 6,000 people were initially evacuated, and some 500 remained in shelters overnight, authorities said.

Military promises reimbursement
Thursday morning, there was plenty of smoking and smoldering material in the fire zone, but few open flames after the storm swept through, Plante said. He said crews should be able to get into the heart of the fire Thursday.

He cautioned, though, that the fire was not out and it could spread again if the temperature and winds picked up.

Dry conditions had fed the blaze as it spread from the bombing range, about 25 miles north of Atlantic City. The military has promised to reimburse those who lost homes or property in the fire if federal investigations pinpoint the jet as the cause of the blaze.

The same range was involved in the accidental strafing in 2004 of an elementary school during a training exercise.

Other fires
Elsewhere, firefighters continued to battle a massive fire along the Florida-Georgia state line, where more than 700 homes were evacuated. Calmer wind Wednesday allowed firefighters to strengthen their containment lines, but the wind and temperature were expected to rise during the weekend, said Jim Harrell, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

By Thursday, the blazes had charred 552 square miles in Florida and Georgia. The haze has reached as far north as central North Carolina and as far south as Miami.

In northern Minnesota, some residents were being allowed to check on their homes along the Gunflint Trail, where a fire has burned more than 117 square miles of Minnesota and Canada. More than 60 homes have been destroyed, but two days of wet, cool weather have helped firefighters make progress getting it contained.

Near Payson, Ariz., a 2 1/2-square-mile wildfire forced a few dozen people to evacuate homes on Thursday. Authorities believe the fire, which started Sunday, was human-caused.

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Video: Ignited by flare


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