Campfire may have started N.J. forest fire that has grown to 13,500 acres

UPDATE: As of 4:15 p.m., the forest fire was 95% contained, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. It had not grown in size.

An unattended campfire in Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens is thought to be the source of a massive forest fire that has been burning for more than two days, authorities said.

The fire in Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica townships has now consumed 13,500 acres, but it is 85% contained, officials said Tuesday. Authorities are “very confident” the fire will not expand past the containment area of 15,175 acres.

No one has been injured and no homes or structures have been damaged, officials said. An investigation is underway into who lit the campfire.

“This was not at a designated camp site where it would have been permitted,” said State Fire Forest Service Chief Gregory S. McLaughlin. “This was in a remote area of the forest. Whether someone was actually camping there or just stopped and decided to have a fire — I don’t necessarily know if people were camping there. We suspect people were passing through.”

While Route 206 and Route 542 have re-opened, Batsto Village, Atsion Recreation Area and all hiking trails are still closed, officials said.

The Mullica River Campground and Lower Forge Campground, where about 50 people were staying on Sunday morning, have not re-opened have been evacuated.

Officials said 18 structures remain “threatened.” Local volunteer fire departments from Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties are helping protect them.

McLaughlin said Tuesday that the fire was detected around 10 a.m. Sunday by Batsto Village and also reported by people canoeing and kayaking along the Mullica River. By 11 a.m, the fire grew to 50 acres.

Firefighters were unable to hold the fire on the east side of the Mullica River due to very low humidity and winds of 23 mph that gusted to 30 mph and shifted, McLaughlin said. The chief noted the fire was intense and in an area very difficult to access by road.

About 75 firefighters and 22 fire engines remain on the scene Tuesday and will likely be there for several days unless heavy rains wipe out the rest of the fire. Light rain is possible overnight with afternoon showers and thunderstorms possible Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.

Water tenders and a helicopter are also on stand-by, officials said.

Smoke will likely be visible for a few more days.

The last fire that burned more than 13,000 acres in the area was a blaze in May 2007 that consumed 15,550 acres of woods in southern Burlington and Ocean counties, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate. Known as the Warren Grove Wildfire, some original estimates were that 17,000 acres had burned, but the Forest Fire Service later determined the number was 15,550 acres.

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NJ Advance Media staff writer Len Melisurgo contributed to this report.

Jeff Goldman may be reached at

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