A fast-moving wildfire in a remote section of a state forest in New Jersey was threatening to become the state’s largest fire in 15 years, and may have been started by an illegal campfire, officials said on Tuesday.
The blaze, called the Mullica River fire, had burned about 13,500 acres in Wharton State Forest and was 85 percent contained as of midday Tuesday, officials said. The forest, in South Jersey, is about 30 miles northwest of Atlantic City.
No injuries were reported, but 18 structures, including several farms and campgrounds, were threatened by the fire, officials said.
The officials said they had ruled out a natural cause for the fire, such as lightning. An “illegal, unattended campfire” was found near the origin of the Mullica River fire, “so that is the cause that we are investigating now,” Chief Gregory McLaughlin of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service said at a news conference on Tuesday.
He added that the area where the “makeshift fire” first started was not a designated camp site and was in a remote area of the forest.
“We’re calling it a campfire, but I don’t necessarily know that people were camped out or camping there for any period of time,” he said, adding that investigators doubt that “people were passing through.”
The fire was projected to consume just over 15,000 acres, officials said.
“Most wildfire is human-caused,” Shawn M. LaTourette, the New Jersey environmental protection commissioner, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Please, please practice fire safety. Report them when you see them.”
About 75 firefighters were on the scene Tuesday using an assortment of equipment, including a helicopter that dropped water over the blaze.
Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey writing on Twitterpraised the fire crews working to contain the blaze.
While weather conditions were dry and sunny on Monday, and slightly above-average temperatures and increasing humidity were in the forecast for the area on Tuesday. Meteorologists said precipitation was more likely on Wednesday.
The fire was first detected on Sunday morning, but initial efforts to suppress it were ineffective because it was difficult for fire crews to reach the remote location of the blaze, Chief McLaughlin said during a news conference on Monday.
About a dozen park visitors were evacuated on Sunday, according to Robert Auermuller, the superintendent of Wharton State Park.
Another 50 people who were in an adjacent private park were also moved, Chief McLaughlin said.
“We were lucky that we had no injuries, no structure damage,” Chief McLaughlin said.
He also warned that smoke from the fire may linger for days and that people who were susceptible to smoke “should stay indoors until this clears.”
There are currently 38 active large wildfires across the United States, altogether consuming nearly three million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In New Mexico, two fires that started as prescribed burns merged to become the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire, the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak blaze, has destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of residents as it burned in a zone of more than 341,000 acres, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.
In the Western United States, wildfires are increasing in size and intensity and wildfire seasons are growing longer. Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.
Peak wildfire season in New Jersey is from mid-March through May, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. But Chief McLaughlin said that the state was “seeing fires more often each year in February.”
About 7,000 acres of the state’s forests are damaged or destroyed each year by an average of 1,500 wildfires. Most of the state’s wildfires are under five acres, Chief McLaughlin said.
The Warren Grove fire in May 2007 was one of the largest forest fires in the state’s history, consuming more than 17,000 acres and destroying four homes. That fire was caused by flares dropped by a National Guard pilot.