Pine Barrens Fire of 1936

by Editorial Staff, SouthJersey.com; Bill Green | Nov 2, 2015
Pine Barrens Fire of 1936 One can only imagine the site of a great fire lighting up the sky with an orange glow and murky black smoke. In the Pine Barrens in 1936, South Jersey residents didn’t have to imagine. The fire, which raged for more than four days and spread over more than 20,000 acres over two counties, took the lives of five men and the courage of 2,000 others to fight it.

Considered to be one of--if not the worst--fire in Burlington and Ocean counties' histories, the Pine Barrens fire of 1936 changed the landscape of South Jersey, from Chatsworth to Tuckerton. One of the men charged with stopping the fire was state fire warden Colonel Leonidas J. Coyle. Coyle lead a force of nearly 2,000 men called in from areas all over New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. The fire, which began in the wooded areas of the Pine Barrens, threatened first the towns of southern Ocean County in its first few hours of destruction. From there, the fire spread west toward Burlington County, destroying three buildings and a saw mill in Warren Grove on its path. On the night the fire was extinguished, it had spread to the town of Mayetta, claiming a home and forcing thousands of others to evacuate from their homes.

The first wave of fireman called in to fight the blaze hailed from the companies of the neighboring areas surrounding the Barrens. One of the first tactics employed by the fireman was to isolate the smaller fires that were raging in the surrounding area and systematically put them out through various methods. The blaze itself was made up of more than 15 fires; four being regarded as the “main fires” and 11 branded as “small fires.”

In all, 23 fire departments helped fight the blaze, consisting of about 2,000 CCC workers, volunteers and soldiers. Out of the 2,000 firefighters, five perished. The sacrifice of the men who died was critical to ending the fire and preserving the lives of others. One of the men, Stanley Carr of Farmingdale, died while driving a truckload of 50 fire fighters out of an increasingly dangerous area that was becoming engulfed by the fire. Carr lost control of the truck in a heavy batch of smoke and crashed into a nearby tree. Only three of the other 50 men died in the accident, with a fourth dying later at Camp Dix hospital from severe burns.

Many of the injuries suffered by other firefighters were treated at Camp Dix hospital. These injuries ranged from burns, to smoke inhalation injuries, to minor bumps and bruises. The Toms River First Aid Squad was also a major part of the rescue and relief effort for those affected by the fire, providing transport of victims to Camp Dix and West Creek Emergency Sec hospital.

While most of the firefighters were members of the 23 fire companies involved, extra help was brought in the from of the US Army's 18th Infantry. 200 standing members of the infantry from Camp Dix battled the blaze for the final three days of the fight. Other outside help included that of 500 CCC campers under the command of Capt. Rowe A. Nelson and 1,000 volunteers under the command of Division Fire Warden John A. Thornberg.

On the night the fire was finally put out, it had ravaged countless homes, businesses and land, and had spread across two counties and claimed the lives of five men--all of whom were under the age of 40. When reached for comment by the New Jersey Mirror in Trenton the night the blaze ended, lead commander and state fire warden Colonel Leonidas J. Coyle called it "the worst fire in our experience." Thanks to the efforts of the 2,000 who fought the fire and the five who gave their lives, nine towns between Burlington and Ocean counties were saved, as were countless lives and properties. Coyle would die a year later in 1937, revered by many as one of the state’s finest fire wardens and firemen. Some years after his death, a memorial was erected in Coyle's honor on Rt. 40, about 12 miles below Four Mile Colony. The memorial remains today, apply known as the “Flying Colonel” Memorial.

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Author: Editorial Staff, SouthJersey.com; Bill Green

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