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A fire in Seaside Park, NJ, in September 2013 that originated under a section of boardwalk spread to four blocks of commercial buildings that housed more than 50 businesses.
The wind-swept fire required the response of dozens of fire departments in Ocean County and task forces from neighboring counties. The area had been devastated last year during Hurricane Sandy and was in the process of being rebuilt, reopened and renovated when the fire occurred.
The Seaside Park Fire Department protects an area measuring seven-tenths of a mile in Seaside Park, a half-mile in South Seaside Park and 11 miles of the Beach State Park along the Atlantic Ocean.
The Ocean County community took the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the area head-on. The population ranges from 1,600 in the winter to 30,000 during the summer. The area is only four to five blocks at its widest point and is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay.
A major fire destroyed the same area in 1955. The fire department averages 300 runs per year. Last year, firefighters responded to 300 additional calls related to Hurricane Sandy. It took two days to evacuate residents who stayed during the storm.
On Sept. 12 at 2:18 P.M., units were dispatched to a report of flames showing underneath the boardwalk in the area of the Sawmill Cafe. The Sawmill is a local landmark that also housed a bar and a banquet hall. Units had responded to the area on a regular basis for alarms, working fires and minor incidents such as reports of a cigarette being dropped between the planks of the boardwalk and smoldering underneath. Access panels located in the area provided access to spaces below the boardwalk; a firefighter would be able to drop down and crouch while moving under the boardwalk. After Sandy pushed large amounts of beach sand into those areas, firefighters would have had to crawl on their stomachs to gain access.
A police detective and the Seaside Park assistant fire chief arrived at the scene at the same time. Heavy smoke was showing, but there was no visible fire. The first engine was on the scene within a few minutes. Access was made into Kohr’s Ice Cream, a world-famous, one-story store. There was a smoke condition, but no heat. Buildings on either side of the boardwalk where the fire started were eight to 10 feet apart. In some areas this section of the boardwalk, built in the 1950s, is well constructed and strong enough for vehicles to make deliveries, but not fire apparatus.
The awnings of adjacent buildings are so close to one another that they almost touch. The rest of the original fire area is adjacent to Funtown Pier, an area that was heavily damaged during Sandy, when a portion of the pier was destroyed and swept out into the ocean. The area contains buildings in a congested, maze-like area. Many of the basements are interconnected.
The first engine started to stretch handlines as the second crew used power saws and pry bars to attempt to open the boardwalk. The assistant fire chief from adjacent Seaside Heights was on that community’s section of the boardwalk and walked down to the scene. A second alarm was called immediately. The fire started at the north end of Seaside Park and extended to the southern end of Seaside Heights. A supply line was stretched to augment the first engine and additional line into the sprinkler siamese for the Sawmill restaurant.
Winds were coming out of the south and heading directly up the boardwalk at 25 to 30 mph. Additional companies forced entry to locked gates to gain access to the pier to the east.
Seaside Park Fire Chief David Hansen arrived and took command. Some of the incoming units that had been directed to cover nearby stations were redirected directly to the fire. Additional water sources were being used to supply ladder pipes, deck guns and numerous handlines. Some master streams were set up on the west side of the fire as it continued to spread north, fanned by the high winds. The tremendous smoke conditions and large burning embers pushed northward toward additional exposures. At one point an evacuation order was given to all firefighters operating on the east side of the fire. It was simply too dangerous to operate in those areas. The fire was not only extending from building to building but also underneath the boardwalk continually fanned by the constant wind.