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New Jersey blaze 70 percent contained

Story Highlights

• NEW: Half inch of rain helps firefighters gain on blaze
• NEW: Evacuated residents returning to homes
• NEW: Florida fire 65 percent contained; Georgia's 15 percent
• New Jersey fire believed to have been started by military jet's flare
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(CNN) -- A flare dropped from an F-16 jet fighter during a training exercise may have caused a wildfire that has burned 14,000 acres since Tuesday afternoon in southern New Jersey, according to the state's National Guard.

"We believe it was a flare from one of our aircraft," New Jersey National Guard spokesman Kryn Westhoven said.

"Normally flares burn out before coming in contact with the ground," he said. "A preliminary investigation indicates that did not happen."

However, officials said Wednesday night the fire was 70 percent contained, and evacuated residents were returning to their homes late Wednesday and Thursday.

Residents of three evacuated nursing homes would be returned Thursday, said Maris Gabliks, the state's chief fire warden.

Firefighters believe they have turned the corner in their efforts to contain the blaze, assisted by a half-inch of rain Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

The Air Force has formed a safety investigation board and an accident investigation board to determine if a flare indeed started the fire, Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth of the National Guard told reporters.

The blaze -- whipped by strong westerly winds -- pushed the fire toward the Garden State Parkway in southern New Jersey Wednesday. (Watch how winds, dry brush fuel blaze Video)

Five homes are believed to have been destroyed and 13 seriously damaged, according to New Jersey State Police Lt. Col. Drew Lieb.

Two firefighters sustained minor injuries, officials said.

About 2,500 homes were evacuated along with the three nursing homes and five retirement communities. More than 600 people sought shelter at nearby schools.

The National Guard has deployed three Black Hawk helicopters to help firefighting efforts.

The fire started at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Warren Grove Firing Range. Several local roads and portions of Routes 539 and 72 were closed to traffic.

The area burning is at the edge of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, about 25 miles north of Atlantic City.

"Largest fire the state has ever had," raging in northeast Florida

Meanwhile, firefighters in northeast Florida were making progress on the huge Bugaboo Fire, officials said, but were concerned about changing weather conditions and shifting wind over the next couple of days.

"This is probably the largest fire the state has ever had," said Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who toured the area Wednesday and spoke with reporters afterward.

But, he said, "the troops on the front line, their spirits are high. ... Everybody seems to have a task, and they're at work."

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag fire warning Wednesday afternoon because of low humidity. A red-flag warning is issued when weather conditions are ripe for extensive wildfire outbreaks.

So far, 730 homes have been evacuated in the area because of the Bugaboo fire, and Jim Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said several communities are being watched for possible evacuations if the fire spreads.

The fire, which began in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia about two weeks ago, is 65 percent contained, after burning 119,501 acres. The part of the fire in Georgia, known as the Bugaboo Scrub Fire, has destroyed 136,565 acres and is 15 percent contained.

Caldwell said visibility had improved, allowing firefighters to make headway with burnouts, control lines, and air drops of slurry and water. Airplanes and helicopters were back in the air, he said.

"We remain very, very dry. The fuel is a shrub-scrub mix and it burns like gasoline," Caldwell said.

CNN's Citabria Stevens, Amy Sahba, Allan Chernoff and Rob Marciano contributed to this report.


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