BERKELEY TWP., N.J. - A combination of low humidity and high winds whipped up a pair of forest fires and prompted evacuations Thursday in Ocean County.
An initial fire was contained but a 300-acre blaze that started before 1 p.m. in Berkeley Township prompted officials to order the evacuation of more than 600 homes for fear that the flames would reach them.
That fire was still burning late Thursday, and officials reported that only 15 percent of it had been contained.
But that was enough for officials to announce that the evacuated residents would be allowed to return overnight.
No one was injured, and the only building damaged was a shed, authorities said.
Officials were hoping that the winds would change and allow them to get a handle on the blaze.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed that Mother Nature cooperates with us," said Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Students at several schools, including Central Regional High School, were sent home early.
Jason Disbrow, 32, of Bayville, said he arranged sprinklers around his Taylor Street home to wet down the area, as fire trucks lined the street.
"Half the sky was orange and the other half was clear blue. Ash was falling," Disbrow said. "Not something you see every day." He left and drove to his parents' home in Forked River.
A National Weather Service "red flag" warning was in place across New Jersey and the Philadelphia area for a second day Thursday because conditions, which included 30 m.p.h. gusts, were ripe for wildfires. Rain on Friday was expected to help lower the threat.
Fire crews set controlled burns around the Berkeley Township blaze to contain it, said Steve Holmes, a spokesman for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
"We try to box the fire in," he said.
National Weather Service radar showed a plume of smoke from the fire drifting for miles out to sea.
Casey Izbicki, office manager at Mike's Riverside Auto on Dover Road in Toms River, said the store was monitoring the fire. She could see smoke and smell a faint odor, she said.
"It's not too bad where we would close yet," Izbicki, 27, said in the afternoon.
Social media, she said, were booming with talk about the blaze. "Apparently everybody's pretty concerned."
Firefighters at the same time were trying to contain a 1,500-acre forest fire burning in Cumberland County in the Edward G. Bevan Fish and Wildlife Management Area area, just south of Millville.
No structures were threatened by that blaze, which started Wednesday, and there were no reports of injuries.
Minor brush fires were reported in Mercer and Atlantic Counties.