SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (AP) — Despite its destruction, Superstorm Sandy proved one thing at the Jersey shore: sand dunes save boardwalks from deadly storms.
On Thursday, as a raging fire erupted on a newly rebuilt boardwalk in two shore resort towns, some makeshift sand dunes saved part of it — from fire this time.
The fire that broke out near a frozen custard stand in Seaside Park rapidly spread north into neighboring Seaside Heights, the former home of MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality show. With a stiff wind whipping the flames and driving them from block to block, the rest of the iconic boardwalk was in danger of going up in flames.
So Seaside Heights officials tried a Hail Mary: they ripped out a 25-foot swath of the boardwalk they had just finished rebuilding five months earlier. And they filled the void with giant sand piles — makeshift dunes designed to halt the spreads of flames and save the northern portion of the boardwalk upon which the community relied for its financial survival.
In much the same way as forest fire crews rip out vegetation to deprive an advancing fire of fuel, the boardwalk gambit succeeded in halting the fire's extension any further into Seaside Heights.
"That appears to have done the trick," said Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies.
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor's Office, said there was no immediate indication of whether the fire appeared to be suspicious or accidental. The first priority was putting it out and securing the scene, he said. A detailed investigation was due to get underway on Friday.
The 6-alarm blaze, fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.
The blaze destroyed all 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk, borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury told The Associated Press. More than 20 other boardwalk businesses in Seaside Heights also were burned, according to Michael Loundy, the town's director of community improvements. Firefighters finally got the fire under control around 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
The livelihoods of the two popular Jersey shore resort communities depend on summer tourism and they had just spent millions of dollars rebuilding their boardwalks, arcade games, pizza stands and bar and grills to be ready for the summer season.
Seaside Heights rushed to reconstruct its boardwalk in time for a May visit by Britain's Prince Harry, and finished with only hours to spare.
"It's devastating; I've been crying all afternoon," said Shirley Kreszl, who has rented a summer home in Seaside Park for decades. "Haven't we been hit enough? We try to rebuild and just when we think we saved a little bit of our town, this happens. It's just not fair."
Gov. Chris Christie, who raced to the fire scene, was typically blunt describing his thoughts as he approached the blaze.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
Koury said the fire caused several million dollars' worth of damage. At one point, she said, flames jumped across Ocean Avenue, the oceanfront street, and ignited two or three small houses but firefighters quickly doused them. A motel near the boardwalk also was engulfed in flames.
"I can't believe this is happening," Koury said as she watched the fire devour boardwalk structures. "Our small business people went through so much in the storm to get ready for summer and stay open all summer, and now it's all gone. I just can't believe it."
Officials said the fire got beneath the boardwalk, making it even more difficult to extinguish.
"It's underneath the boards, and it's coming up through the cracks," Koury said. "It's making it harder to get water on it."
Matthies said the businesses were primarily wood with tar roofs and shingles, which accelerated the fire.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC