By Dave Warner
SEASIDE PARK, New Jersey (Reuters) – A fast-moving fire that started in a custard shop raged through blocks of boardwalk and businesses on Thursday in this New Jersey beach town still rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy, and officials said it would not be contained until Friday morning.
A late-night rainstorm brought relief to some 400 firefighters struggling to contain the wind-driven flames. Part of the boardwalk was torn up and a 20-foot (6-meter) trench dug to keep flames from spreading through the close-packed buildings.
Firefighters using a 50-foot (15-meter) extension ladder poured a stream of water into a blazing pizza restaurant as flashers and spotlights from dozens of fire trucks lit up the pillar of smoke rising from the town.
“I talked to the fire coordinator, and he said it would not be 100 percent contained until tomorrow morning,” Police Chief Francis Larkin told Reuters.
He added that “hot spots” in buildings were slowing containment, at which point flames were not likely to spread.
Seaside Park’s Town Administrator Robert Martucci told CNN the fire had started in a frozen custard shop around 2:15 p.m. EDT and then raced north under winds of up to 40 mph (65 km per hour).
Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency and said at a televised news conference that about 20 businesses had been affected. The cause of the fire was unknown, and there were some minor injuries, he said.
Mayor Bob Matthies told Reuters that the blaze had destroyed a total of six blocks of businesses in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, the town’s northern neighbor, both of which were badly damaged during Sandy in October 2012.
“I realize there is another challenge to this town” after rebuilding from Sandy, Matthies said, his T-shirt getting wet under the rain.
Seaside Park is less than 2 miles from the carnival rides and better-known boardwalk of Seaside Heights, where MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” is filmed. Seaside Heights’ partly submerged Jet Star roller coaster became one of the most famous images of the damage from the giant storm.
Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, devastated the New Jersey coast and damaged its tourism industry. A federal relief program for damage from Sandy has topped $60 billion, with New Jersey’s damage estimated at $37 billion.
Sandy took a heavy toll on Seaside Park, a town of about 2,200 people, destroying about 150 feet of its boardwalk and its Funtown Pier. A second pier was reduced to twisted wreckage.
The fire “just puts us back in the hole again, after Sandy,” said Don Slonaker, 54, a nuclear power plant worker who watched the fire from its start.
Christie said the water infrastructure was still being repaired from Sandy damage and firefighters were forced to run hoses to nearby Barnegat Bay for water.
John Saaddy, a business owner in nearby Seaside Heights, New Jersey, told CNN the fire raced through a “fire highway” under the boardwalk. Embers were blown two or three blocks onto rooftops by the wind, he said.
“There was no way for the water from the top to come down into the beams underneath. So it was basically a big chase, and it spread. Incredibly, in one hour I watched … three blocks” caught fire, he said.