Wharton State Forest blaze now mostly contained

June 19 fire encompassed more than 13,000 acres

The fire that struck Wharton State Forest is the largest in the state since 2007. Officials say the blaze spread over 20 miles.

Investigators are exploring the possibility that an illegal campfire resulted in a June 19 blaze that engulfed 13,500 acres of Wharton State Forest in Burlington County.

The largest state forest in the U.S. and the largest single tract of land within the New Jersey Parks System, Wharton encompasses Hammonton, Shamong and Washington and Mullica townships. It is at the center of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve.

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 As of deadline, the fire – which began around 10 a.m. and hit a small part of Atlantic County – has been 95-percent contained, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. No injuries were reported.

In a media briefing held by the Department of Environmental Protection two days after the blaze, fire service Chief Gregory McLaughlin noted that when firefighters arrived on scene at 11 a.m., flames that appeared an hour earlier had already affected about 50 acres. Firefighters used a method called “direct attack” to contain the blaze, which the chief said displayed “extremely intense fire behavior,” a result of low humidity, sustained winds at 23 miles an hour and wind gusts up to 30 miles an hour. 

According to the fire service, the suspected campfire may have been in violation of the DEP’s General Forest Fire Act, which outlines restrictions on open burning. 

The blaze was first spotted by a forest fire observer at the Batsto Fire Tower and by others on the Mullica River, according to McLaughlin. Firefighters continued to fight its spread through last week. Seventy-five firefighters were on the scene two days after the fire, including a helicopter that circled the forest to drop water on burning areas. 

Local farms, campgrounds and other sites near the site of the blaze  included Pinelands Adventures, an outdoor recreation program that was scheduled to end on June 22. Wharton State Forest is also the site of Batsto Village, a former iron and glassmaking industrial center that operated from 1766 to 1867, and that reflects the agricultural and commercial enterprises of the late 19th century. 

The village is overseen by the DEP and Division of Parks. Along with the Atsion Recreation Area and hiking trails, it was closed as of June 22. 

For more information, visit https://nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks/whartonstateforest.html

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