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Rain Soaks New Jersey Wildfire, Officials Hope For Full Containment

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) _ A second rainstorm in three days soaked a forest fire on Friday and raised hopes that it could be brought under full control by day's end.

The fire, which has burned 17,250 acres since it began Tuesday, was 70 percent contained on Friday morning.

Bert Plante, a division fire warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said that percentage was sure to increase as the day went on.

``We really appreciate this latest rain,'' he said. ``So far, it's been light but steady, coming down slowly and giving everything a good soaking, and that helps a lot.''

On Thursday, unpredictable wind played tricks with firefighters trying to extinguish the once-massive wildfire, which had been tamed only the night before from a driving rain.

New Jersey Air National Guard officials said one of their F-16s dropped a flare into the tinder-dry Pinelands during a training mission Tuesday, possibly starting the blaze.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported. Five homes in Barnegat were destroyed and 13 others along the line separating Ocean and Burlington counties were damaged, officials said.

About 6,000 people were evacuated from 2,500 homes at the height of the blaze.

Residents of the worst-hit areas were allowed to return home on Thursday.

Lester Balkie, 85, had no home left. His trailer in neighboring Barnegat Township burned to the ground.

Tugging at his denim shirttails, he announced, ``This is everything I own now.''

Behind him, his children and other relatives picked through ashes. What they managed to save fit into Balkie's palm: a watch band, a commemorative coin and a few other scraps of metal.

The military has promised to reimburse property owners if federal investigations find that the jet caused the blaze. Officials began handing out claims forms Thursday.

The fire started on the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a 9,400-acre expanse of sand and scrub pine used for bombing practice by military aircraft.

The range was the same facility from which a National Guard jet accidentally strafed an elementary school with large-caliber rounds in 2004 during a training exercise. In 2001, an errant practice bomb caused a fire that burned more than 1,600 acres of pine forest.

Elsewhere, some northern Minnesota residents have been allowed to check on their homes along the Gunflint Trail, a road into the wilderness where a fire has burned more than 117 square miles in the U.S. and Canada. About 140 structures, including more than 60 homes, have been destroyed, but two days of wet, cool weather have helped firefighters make progress getting it contained.

Along the Florida-Georgia state line, firefighters continued to battle a huge fire that forced the evacuation of more than 700 homes. The Florida Division of Forestry said that Friday and Saturday are critical days as the wind picks up and the humidity drops.

By Thursday, the blazes had charred 552 square miles in the two states. The haze has reached as far north as North Carolina and as far south as Miami.

Near Payson, Ariz., a 4-square-mile wildfire forced about 20 people to evacuate homes on Thursday. Authorities believe the fire, which started Sunday, was human-caused.
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