The great Jakes Branch wildfire all began with an errant spark from a campfire that wasn't quite out back in June 2002. New Jersey was in the middle of a drought. The woods were like a tinderbox.
It was shortly after 1 p.m. when a state forest fire worker on the Cedar Bridge fire tower spotted a plume of smoke off in the distance, in a remote area of Berkeley Township. By 1:14 p.m., a state Forest Fire Service warden had already tried unsuccessfully to put the flames out with his brush truck.
By 1:25 p.m, the fire was racing east, moving at 127 feet per minute. State fire officials ordered the Garden State Parkway shut down in Beachwood and Berkeley. The fire jumped the parkway. Smoke could be seen in Manahawkin, Manchester, Toms River and Brick.
In the end, the great Jakes Branch blaze of June 2, 2002, consumed 1,277 acres, destroyed a home on Grand Central Parkway in Berkeley, damaged a number of others and led to the evacuation of hundreds near the fire's borders.
Anyone who wants to travel back to that day a decade ago can do so by visiting the interactive display in the Nature Center at Jakes Branch County Park in Beachwood.
Ocean County and State Forest Fire Service officials Monday unveiled the "Firewise Living in the Garden State" exhibit, designed to highlight the Jakes Branch wildfire and forest fire prevention.
"It was a bad couple of days for us," said William Edwards of the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service.
Evidence of the fire can still be seen along Double Trouble Road in Beachwood and Berkeley townships. Bare pines, now bleached from 10 years of sun, water and wind, stud the woods and the narrow barrier of land between the Garden State Parkway and Double Trouble Road.
Some trees are are still tinged brown up to about 10 feet, then grow green towards the sky.
The interactive display features a timeline of when the fire began, efforts to fight the massive blaze and its final containment on June 3. But the Jakes Branch fire wasn't officially declared out until June 28, 2002.
The display was built with a $25,000 federal "Firewise" grant administered by the state Forest Fire Service, said Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., liaison to the county parks and recreation department.
"We were able to put it together in-house," Bartlett Jr. said after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"Beachwood has been a tremendous host for the county park system," said Bartlett, the longtime liaison to the parks and recreation department.
Beachwood Mayor Ronald Roma lived in the area of the fire.
"The height of the fire for me was my kids being able to play on the Parkway," he joked.
Today the state Forest Fire Service and Ocean County work in tandem to prevent and train for forest fires, said county Parks Director Michael Mangum.
"The Forest Fire Service has trained many of our people," he said.
The interactive display features a chronological pictorial timeline of the fire. Press a button and you can hear the fire burning. Smoke seeps from underneath the display. If you suddenly feel a little hot, that's because there's a heater above the display.
To see the Jakes Branch fire display, visit the park off Double Trouble Road in Beachwood. For more information, call 732-270-6960.