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New Jersey forest fire scorches 300 acres, damages several homes

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A forest fire near New Jersey's Double Trouble State Park scorched more than 300 acres Thursday, damaging some homes and forcing about 40 people to evacuate on a day that officials warned would deliver the perfect conditions for such a blaze.

The nearly 1 million acres of wetlands and forests that span the New Jersey Pinelands near the state’s southern coast are a major fire risk between Easter and Mother’s Day, when the pines tend to dry out in the sunlight.

The National Weather Service warned early Thursday that the added mix of low humidity and strong gusts of up to 30 mph would “lead to a more rapid spread rate of any fires that may develop.”

The strongest winds were expected in early afternoon. The weather service warned residents to avoid fires and improper disposal of smoking materials.

The fire in Berkeley Township was reported in a 911 call about 11:45 a.m. Officials said the blaze, whose cause was not immediately clear, had been 30% contained by 4:30 p.m. EDT.

Ocean County spokeswoman Donna Flynn told the Los Angeles Times that  firefighters were trying to box in the fire, including by using back burns. She estimated about 100 to 200 firefighters were involved. Some of them were lined up as a precaution near a neighborhood close to the blaze.

The Berkeley Township Police Department said several homes sustained damage, but “were not total losses,” and at least one school was evacuated. No injuries were immediately reported.

Earlier this month, a fire in a state forest south of the site of Thursday’s blaze sent smoke 90 miles north to New York City.

New Jersey had battled 377 forest fires this year through last week, similar to the 383 fires in the same period last year. But the amount of terrain burned this year -- 2,200 acres -- was more than triple the total in the same period last year. 

The state employs nearly two dozen fire towers, where authorities keep watch during the day for smoke and flames.

Steven Pyne, an Arizona State University fire historian, describes the New Jersey Pinelands as “among the most flammable landscapes in America”  and “perhaps the most famous unknown firescape in America.” The region’s "sugar sand" earth quickly sucks down rainwater, leaving the ground surprisingly dry and unfertile, he said. The region's bogs are set up to be among the top U.S. producers of cranberries and blueberries, however.

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