Chapter Twenty one: The burning season


            Firefighters from the North End fire house described the May 1 Meadowlands fire in Rutherford as a mile wide wall of flame.

Secaucus firefighters helped battle that blaze from the water as well as the ground. In efforts several town officials called Aheroic,@ firefighters out of North End and other Secaucus fire houses scrambled to meet mutual aid requests from Rutherford and East Rutherford as flames roared along the western shore of the Hackensack River.

This was the second major fire to strike the borders of Secaucus in two weeks, and the third major disaster to which firefighters were asked to respond, and although the latest conflagration was outside the boundaries of Secaucus, the volunteer fire department lent its expertise to an effort to help contain the blaze.

Residents along the Secaucus riverside near Harmon Cove said flames engulfed the entire other side of the river in a spectacular blaze that lasted for hours, sending towers of smoke and cinder high into the sky. Fire officials said sparks continued to spread the flames along the dry reeds, causing numerous side fires to develop.

Secaucus firefighters have become particularly adept at battling meadow fires, and some officers call this Athe burning season,@ because a small flame can cause a chain reaction.

            AThe grass out there is last year's grass, standing tall, maybe five to 10 feet tall, all individual leaves of this saw grass, and it=s dry,@ said former Fire Chief George Shoenrock, who was part of the North End Fire House team that responded to the blaze across the river.

Fire officials in Rutherford said a spark of a train wheel was believed the cause, setting into motion a dynamic chain reaction that swept through the reeds along the south side of Route 3, threatening at least one home and the riverside dock Secaucus firefighters managed to save.

Flames roared across the Meadowlands from three different places, along the railroad tracks, near the border of Rutherford and East Rutherford, and along the tracks in Carlstadt to the north B nearly engulfing the Penn Bottle Supply company on Murray Hill Parkway in East Rutherford.

George Heflich, of the Washington Hook and Ladder Company, also a former chief, said meadow grass, when dry, can ignite easily.

AIt goes up just like it was gasoline,@ Heflich said, noting he had seen such fires travel across the meadows in moments, often capable of trapping the unsuspecting observer.

Councilman John Reilly, who is also a firefighter and council liaison to the fire department, said reeds are hollow and contain air that helped fuel the fire. Shoenrock agreed, saying that such fires move hundreds of feet in a very short time, making it difficult for firefighters to contain.

AYou have to sit back and let it come to you,@ he said. AYou can=t always send a crew into the meadows. The crew might get trapped or sink down into quick sand.@

Secaucus firefighters are particularly adept at battling meadow blazes, said Mayor Dennis Elwell, but he noted that a change of state law had hampered firefighting efforts in this regard.

AIn the past, firefighters could set backfires,@ Elwell said. ANow they aren=t allowed to under state law.@

A backfire tends to burn up fuel that the main fire would consume and creates a gap in the reeds that prevents the main fire from advancing.

            Plumes of smoke from the Rutherford fire could be seen as far away as Paterson, fire officials said, and because trains in and out of  Hoboken had to pass thorough the burning area, commuter traffic was stopped for several hours. Flames also threatened sections of the New Jersey Turnpike prompting firefighters to  close the extremely busy 16W southbound ramp. Ashes from the fire fell over most Hudson County communities including Hoboken, Jersey City and Weehawken. While no one was injured in the two fires, or in several others throughout the state that have set more than 1,000 acres ablaze in the last few days.

Firefighters were also hampered by the lack of wide enough access roads into the affected area.

Secaucus firefighters out of the North End fire house rushed to the scene via its fire boat B the only such vehicle in the Meadowlands area with pumps for fire suppression attached B to battle a riverside dock which flames threatened to devour, as ground units from Secaucus also rushed via clogged highways to lend aid on the ground as flames filled the horizon.

Secaucus Fire Chief Robert Cordes said Secaucus responded to the fire with numerous units, including one unit sent to the town of Rutherford as part of a mutual aid agreement.

AOne unit guarded the town in case a fire broke out while their units were fighting the meadows fire,@ he said.

Secaucus supplied another valuable piece of equipment to the fight, a smaller than typical fire truck that allowed Secaucus firefighters to get into normally restricted areas.

AWe have a small pumper than can get into spaces where other fire units can=t,@ Cordes said.

The unit stationed at the North End firehouse is typically used to get into tight areas.

            During this fire, crews from the North End rolled through the tight spots in the meadows to bring fire suppression nearer the blaze, while larger units from Secaucus and other towns sent arches of water over the tops of the reeds hoping to keep the blaze contained.

The North End firehouse also played a key role in putting out a blaze on a dock along the Rutherford riverside.

Marine One is a nine-year-old pumper boat with two hose connections that draws out of the river to help fight the fire. Shoenrock said water is drawn up through the body of the boat and blasted at the blaze.

AOther towns don=t have a boat that has a pumper,@ Shoenrock said. AThey know we have and often ask us to send it.@

Reilly said the unit was launched from the marina behind the Red Roof Inn on Meadowlands Parkway.

With a horizon full of flames, the crew from the North End firehouse got the dock and put out the flames.

            Secaucus also sent out units on April 29 to deal with flames that spread across the meadows just south of Route 495 in North Bergen.

Witnesses said the fire flowed across the grass like moving water, igniting everything it touched. Cordes said he and Chief Frank Walters, set up units on Secaucus Road, as Secaucus fire-fighting units from Washington Hook and Ladder and other fire houses joined Hudson Regional in the attempt to contain the blaze.

AWe had to assure some of the residents in the area that the fire wasn=t going to reach them,@ Cordes said.

That fire swept over nearly 60 acres, leaving a black smudge on the landscape that looked like mud days later.

Councilman Robert Kickey, a member of the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management along with Vincent Massaro, Sr., the Director of the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management, patrolled the area in case the flames reached Secaucus.

That fire shut down Tonnelle Avenue, as well as the New Jersey Turnpike ramp leading to North Bergen and parts of Routes 495 and 3 and caused NJ Transit to suspended service between New York Penn Station and Newark. Propelled by strong winds, the fire moved towards County Avenue in Secaucus and threatened Turnpike exit 16E for a time.

AWe were out there from 7 p.m. until after 1 a.m., until we knew the fire was contained and no one=s property was endanger,@ Cordes said. AWe had four units on the site. Three pumps and a rescue unit.@

A second fire in the same area struck on May 5, but firefighters managed to keep the blaze from igniting trailers stored in a sight just north of Secaucus Road, although the flames came within a few feet of the truck storage facility, scorching the sides of some of the trailers.

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