LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Warren Grove Gunnery Range says it tries hard to be a good neighbor to the growing communities in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
But if your neighbor repeatedly set the neighborhood on fire, crashed a plane into it, and shot up the local elementary school, how neighborly would you feel?
The latest hazard caused by the range — a massive forest fire that burned 14,000 acres, damaged or destroyed a handful of homes and forced 6,000 people to flee — underscores the tensions between the base, which trains pilots bound for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ring of senior citizen developments encroaching ever nearer.
“It should be shut down,” said Joy Zomerdyke, who fled her Barnegat home with her husband when a police officer frantically banged on the door as the flames approached Tuesday afternoon, yelling for them to get out immediately. “There have been too many mistakes. People’s lives were in danger.”
Plane suspected of igniting blaze
Although the military is still investigating, National Guard officials say they believe the fire started when a flare dropped from an F-16 jet on a training maneuver ignited the tinder-dry Pinelands on a day when special fire safety precautions were to be in effect.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service had the fire 90 percent contained on Saturday, and hoped to have it fully under control by the end of the day, said Bert Plante, a division fire warden.
The Zomerdykes were fortunate to return home two days later to an unscathed home, right down to the can of beer Dan Zomerdyke had just popped open before the evacuation order.
But across the street, Lester Balkie found only a pile of charred ashes where he and his wife of 62 years had lived. Catherine Balkie passed away last October, and now even his photographs of her are gone.
Yet in the face of devastation, Balkie bore no hostility toward the range or its personnel.
“I’m a firm believer in the military,” he said, wiping away tears as he looked at the tiny handful of watch parts and coins his relatives salvaged from the rubble. “They’re doing their job. But maybe there’s a better place for them to do it — like the Mojave Desert.”
History of mishaps
The blaze was just the latest in a string of accidents at the Warren Grove range:
—In April 1999, a Pennsylvania National Guard A-10 jet aiming for the range instead dropped a dummy bomb a mile off-target over the Pinelands in Burlington County, touching off a fire that burned 12,000 acres and lasted four days.
—In June 2001, another errant bomb dropped by an F-16 caused a fire that scorched 1,600 acres when the pilot missed a target area that had been cleared of trees and brush.
—In January 2002, an F-16 crashed near the Garden State Parkway — the third such crash at the range since 1992.
—And in November 2004, an F-16 mistakenly shot up an elementary school when the pilot applied too much pressure on the trigger. The plane fired 25 rounds from its artillery cannon instead of activating a targeting laser beam as he had intended. Fortunately, the school was empty aside from a custodian, and no one was injured.
Immediately afterward, the largely conservative, blue-collar region seemed evenly split between residents irked by the range, and staunchly pro-military residents with “God Bless Our Troops” bumper stickers and yellow ribbons slathered over their pickup trucks.
‘Wearing my patience thin’
But this week’s fire, threatening thousands of people, seems to have tipped the balance of public opinion.
“It’s wearing my patience thin,” said Sharon Ragonese of Barnegat. “You would think after the incident with the school, they’d learn to be more careful.”
Range officials were on the defensive again.
“I can assure you our number one priority is the safe operation of this range,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the head of the National Guard in New Jersey. “It’s a vital function these men and women are performing for this nation. It’s our responsibility to make sure they do it safely.”
The military is also catching flak from elected officials.
“This fire never should have started — period,” said U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who plans to meet with Air Force and National Guard officials Monday to discuss the future of the range.
“This fire started because the National Guard did not follow proper safety procedures — procedures I called for nearly three years ago,” Lautenberg said. “New Jersey expects their military to act more safely and more carefully.”
Military promises reimbursement
Lawmakers from Ocean County are calling for the bombing range to be closed. State Sen. Leonard Connors and Assemblymen Christopher Connors and Brian Rumpf said operations need to be suspended immediately as a prelude to a shutdown.
Rieth said the Air Force has opened two investigations, one focusing on the accident itself, and one on whether safety precautions were followed or need to be improved.
He also said the military will reimburse people whose homes or property were damaged in the fire.
Mike Grabowski, who lives adjacent to the range in Stafford Township, noted the booming population around the range.
“I don’t know of anyone who moved here not knowing they were moving in next to a bombing range,” he said. “It’s a trade-off you make. I know we’re at war and these guys need to do their training. But they need to get their act together.”
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