Military officials announced Friday they were suspending training at an aerial bombing range where a flare dropped from a military jet may have caused a 27-square mile wildfire.
The Air Force also said it convened an accident investigation board to investigate how the blaze began on the Warren Grove Gunnery range. The fire continued to burn Friday, but a steady rain was assisting firefighting efforts.
Training was suspended pending the investigation, officials said.
New Jersey Air National Guard officials said the fire might have been sparked by a flare dropped from F-16 into the tinder-dry southern New Jersey Pinelands during a training mission Tuesday. The military has promised to reimburse property owners if investigations find the jet was to blame, and officials began handing out claims forms Thursday.
6,000 evacuated at height of blaze
At the height of the fire, 6,000 people were evacuated and a handful of homes were damaged or destroyed. The blaze was between 90 and 95 percent contained as of late Friday afternoon, said Jim Petrini, assistant fire warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. It would likely be another day or so before it was declared under control, he said.
Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, New Jersey adjutant general, said he had directed the 177th Fighter Wing unit at Atlantic City International Airport to stand down from all flying activity for the day and conduct an all-day safety review.
The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said in a news release that the suspension of flight activities and safety review would "provide an opportunity for F-16 pilots to focus on an extensive review of all safety procedures."
During a tour of the area Friday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said exercises at the bombing range "have become a major public safety issue."
Firefighters gain on Florida-Georgia fire
Elsewhere, firefighters were making progress battling a wildfire along the Georgia-Florida border, which was 70 percent contained Friday, officials said.
But Ronda Sutphen, a fire prevention officer with the Florida Division of Forestry, said a cold front expected this weekend could spread the fire. "It's a bad forecast," Sutphen said.
Residents of about 200 homes were allowed to return Friday, but some 541 residences remained evacuated Friday, Columbia County spokeswoman Paulette Lord said. Officials canceled a three-day folk music and arts festival set for next weekend at a state park.
A fire in northern Minnesota that has burned 117 square miles in the U.S. and Canada could be brought under control by Sunday, officials said. Authorities hope to lift the remaining evacuation orders affecting about 100 residents along the Gunflint Trail by Tuesday.
Near Payson, Ariz., firefighters finished burning away potential fuel from a 4-square-mile wildfire that has forced about 21 people from their homes. The evacuees may be able to return home Sunday, officials said, and rain also was helping firefighting efforts there.