BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — Someone intentionally lit Saturday’s 540-acre wildfire, according to authorities, who are now investigating whether that fire and another that destroyed a county park visitor center are related.
The fire set Saturday started south of the dirt section of Cloverdale Road, which branches through a densely wooded area north from Route 72. Officials said an open flame was applied to “a jackpot of fuel” — in this case, thick piles of dead foliage.
On March 1, officials said, someone started a fire on the exterior of the historic Cloverdale Farm County Park visitor center, destroying it.
The visitor center was on the paved section of Cloverdale Road, which heads south from West Bay Avenue and stops at a cranberry bog. On the other side of the bog, the road picks up as an unpaved path, which is where the forest fire was set.
“At this point, we can’t rule out the fact that they are related,” Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Thomas Hayes said. “We have no suspects at this time, but we are definitely looking into that possibility.”
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service says 99 percent of all fires in the state are started by people, with about 40 percent of those the result of arson.
But even after determining a fire was set intentionally — sometimes using K-9 dogs trained to smell matches or butane fuel — it is exceedingly difficult to find who set it, especially if there are no footprints or trails left for bloodhounds to follow, authorities said.
“I’d like to catch more of them,” Division Fire Warden Bert Plante said. “Figuring out if someone set a fire is one thing, but then when you get to the point of finding who was holding the match, that’s another issue entirely.”
Nearby residents already have their own theories about how the fires started.
Illegal ATV and dirt bike riders frequent the sandy trails through the wooded area. Homeowners often complain, but police say catching them is difficult.
Even so, authorities are skeptical.
“I understand the concern, and I have heard that in the past,” Barnegat Township police Chief Art Drexler said. “I don’t know if that is where the concern should be as to the fire starter.”
“Of course we’re looking into the possibility because obviously you have to get into the woods some way. But it also could be ... someone walking their dog back there.”
A few dozen people were evacuated Saturday from the communities closest to the fire, but officials said no homes or structures were damaged by the flames.
It did stir up bad memories from worse fires in the past, particularly the Warren Grove fire in 2007 that burned more than 17,000 acres.
“I think it got a lot of people upset and nervous,” said Nancy Reid, a resident in the Horizons at Barnegat senior community, which is just north of where both recent fires occurred.
Reid is chairwoman of her neighborhood’s Firewise Committee, which initiates fire safety projects and educates residents about what they can do to protect themselves and their property.
Those safety projects include making fuel breaks — patches of woods thinned of small trees and excessive brush to reduce the intensity of a fire — on the edge of the community and setting up home fire danger assessments.
Ronald Ackerman is another member of the Horizons committee. He moved to the township a few years ago, completely unaware that fire was a common occurrence here.
“Our house happens to be right on the woods, so if the fire were somewhere behind our home, we probably would have a major problem,” he said. “If the wind hadn’t changed, it looked like it would be coming over this way.”
Ackerman was sitting outside Wednesday and could still smell smoke wafting into his backyard from the fire that finally stopped a few thousand feet away Sunday.
“Hopefully, they can catch whoever is doing this,” he said.
Similar Firewise groups have been organizing in the other communities that abut the large swaths of Pine Barrens on the western end of Barnegat, such as the Four Seasons at Mirage and Brighton at Barnegat developments.
That work will also complement ongoing plans by the Forest Fire Service to make fuel breaks throughout the surrounding forest, such as along Pancoast Road to the northeast and Hay Road to the southeast.
Coincidentally, Reid’s committee had a meeting Wednesday night to talk about the steps people can take to make their homes less vulnerable to wildfires.
“We were concerned about how many people were going to come out tonight,” she said, “and now I think we’re going to have a crowd.”
Anyone with information about the two recent incidents may call the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office at 732-929-2027, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service Division B office at 609-726-9010 or the Barnegat Township Police Department at 609-698-5000.
Contact Lee Procida: