Fifty-five years ago — on April 20, 1963 — New Jersey's biggest forest fire disaster laid waste to much of South Jersey, fueled by drought and winds gusting to 40 mph.
Dubbed Black Saturday, it was actually the start of dozens of fires concentrated in Atlantic, Ocean and Burlington counties.
The fires covered about 190,000 acres, 4 percent of New Jersey’s land base. They killed seven people and destroyed hundreds of buildings with an estimated value of $8.5 million, in a time when the population of the area was a fraction of what it is now. Many of the fires were traced back to people burning debris.
“All hell broke lose in Atlantic County,” said Carl Owen, 75, who at the time was a young volunteer firefighter with the Mays Landing Fire Company.
The April 22, 1963 front page of The Press of Atlantic City reported four fires were still out of control Sunday night in rural Hammonton, the Nesco-Sweetwater and Elwood areas of Mullica, and along Ocean Heights Avenue in Egg Harbor Township.
Rain Monday night finally vanquished the fires after three days, said Owen, who was still fighting a fire in Newtonville when the welcome downpour started.
Egg Harbor Township Fire Chief Anthony Canale estimated then that 85 percent of the township's wooded area was scorched and 21 homes destroyed.
Among those killed was Stanley Kirkillos, 68, "a semi-invalid former acrobat who got about with the aid of a cane and was found dead in the yard of his home at 10th and Woodbury roads in Newtonville," according to a Press story.
Another Press story said a Galloway Township man was arrested for allegedly using kerosene-soaked rags to start four fires in his hometown.
Spring is forest fire season in New Jersey, because the lack of leaves on trees allows the sun to hit the ground, warm it up and dry out debris, according to the state Forest Fire Service. The sandy soil of the Pinelands can lead to extra dry conditions, and pine trees have sap that burns hot and fast.
Conditions were ripe for a disastrous fire the morning of April 20, 1963.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service fire danger readings “were at the top of the scale,” said Owen. “They couldn’t get any higher” because of dry conditions and a strong westerly wind.
Multiple fires started in Atlantic County, he said.
One of the biggest fires started on the border of Egg Harbor and Hamilton townships, in an area known as Catawba. That fire burned through much of Egg Harbor Township, destroying a friend’s trailer on Ocean Heights Avenue and killing his hunting dogs in a kennel there, Owen said.
“There were places on Ocean Heights Avenue where there were not even ashes left on the ground,” he said. “The ground was pure white, and there was nothing standing.
“By the time it stopped, it ran out of things to burn around Tilton Road in Northfield,” Owen said. The southern border got almost to Somers Point-Mays Landing Road, he said, and the northern almost to the Black Horse Pike in the Cardiff section of EHT.
“If that fire at Catawba to Tilton Road started today (with the same weather conditions), can you imagine what loss of property would be through there?” Owen said. “Most of the people who lived in there had little farms, and clearings around houses. Now people have got damned pine trees over their houses. There are thousands of houses now. We don’t have enough equipment in Atlantic County to protect them.”
State Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin said the state has done much to mitigate the size of future fires, by getting rid of fuels with controlled burns and by creating fire breaks.
But dry conditions and high winds will always be a threat.
"How far a fire travels and how fast it spreads is impacted by weather," said McLaughlin. "The 1963 fire was traveling at an extreme rate, in some cases 4.5 miles an hour. With our tactics we estimate we can handle fires traveling a quarter- to a half- mile an hour."
Much would depend on how many fires start around the same time, he said.
"Would it go as far today? Possibly. Are there more structures now? Definitely," McLaughlin said. "Can it spread that fast again? Absolutely."
Janis Hetrick of Egg Harbor Township said she remembered the fire so well, she mentioned it in her mother Kay Hetrick’s obituary.
Her mother owned The Ponderosa tavern at Fire and Delilah roads, she said, and the area's deer were running by it towards Absecon to escape the flames.
"One ran into the bar and we quick had to open the front door and all get together to herd her out," said Hetrick. "It became one of the stories of the Ponderosa forever after that."
One of the first fires that day started around Unexpected Road, on the border of Buena Vista and Franklin townships, Ward said.
“It went down through Newtonville and raised all kinds of hell, causing lots of property damage” and killing Kirkillos, he said.
Firefighters had few tools to use against the fast-moving flames.
Another started at a blueberry farm where workers were believed to be burning debris, near Route 50 and the Black Horse Pike, he said.
That time of the year, the Forest Fire Service normally would restrict all burning, said Owen. But farmers burning debris in the middle of a large cleared area were generally allowed to go ahead.
“It was probably a mile to a quarter mile from any woods, out in the middle of a field somewhere,” he said. “Normally you won’t have a problem."
But with the weather so extreme, dry westerly winds picked up tiny pieces of lit debris and sent them miles into the forest, he said.
“We were on the truck trying to get through the area,” said Owen of a section of Cologne Avenue where he saw flames cross above them from canopy to canopy. “We couldn’t do anything, just hoped to get out of there before we got burned.”
In some areas they tried to light backfires, to burn the fuel ahead of the fire so when it got there, there was nothing to burn. But sometimes the wind spread those, Owen said.
Often they focused on trying to save people’s houses, but sometimes it was too dangerous to stay in an area.
Another fire victim in 1963 was Burlington City Fire Chief Frank Jacoby, who was killed responding to a call for assistance in battling a Pinelands blaze that stretched 21 miles from Pemberton in Burlington County to the Garden State Parkway in Ocean County. He died when the firetruck he was riding on collided with another firetruck in Woodland Township. Heavy smoke had made it impossible for the drivers to see each other.
Soon after the fires Owen went on to work for the state Forest Fire Service, retiring in 1991 as the division fire warden for the state’s six southern counties.