The boardwalk in the coastal New Jersey towns of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park caught fire Thursday afternoon, ravaging the waterfront that had been devastated by SuperStorm Sandy less than a year ago. While the fire is now 95 percent contained and no casualties have been reported, the damage done to the historic area is extensive, according to The Asbury Park Press.
And while the world might recognize Seaside Heights as the setting for former MTV reality show "Jersey Shore," it is one of the most storied towns in East Coast surfing, with history dating back to the 1940s.
According to local reports, the fire broke out near the Kohr's Ice Cream stand around 2:15 p.m. on Thursday. Heavy winds from the south made the blaze impossible to contain, authorities said. The six-alarm fire spread north from Stockton Avenue and destroyed eight blocks of boardwalk and business in both towns. The fire happened just blocks away from where the Jet Star roller coaster fell into the sea off the decimated Casino Pier during Sandy.
According to NJ.com, at least 400 firefighters from surrounding municipalities battled the blaze. Crews cut out a section of the recently rebuilt Seaside Heights boardwalk at Lincoln Avenue and dug a 20-foot trench to contain the fire. Smoke could be seen throughout the entire Jersey Shore to the north. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrived Thursday night to offer the state's support and to brief national news outlets.
"We lost a place that has provided generations of memories, but we will rebuild," Christie said during a news conference on Friday morning.
Seaside Heights and Seaside Park have long held a special place in the hearts of folks from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The boardwalk, built in 1920, became a tourism jewel and icon of the Jersey Shore, a region that boasted a $40 billion tourism industry before Sandy. Seaside was among the hardest-hit towns. After a winter of renovations and rebuilding the boardwalk, the town was open, but limped along economically this summer. Many homes in the area are still being rebuilt or razed, and locals and business owners were looking toward the summer of 2014 for a more normal season.
In all, more than 30 businesses, many of which are landmarks themselves, including the Sawmill, the Beach Comber, Carousel Amusements, Jack and Bills, and Kohr's, were destroyed, according to NJ.com.
"We went there to surf yesterday, and it was just spreading. We went over by the Aztec Motel to see if we could do anything and wound up standing on a roof. It was unbelievable," said Sam Hammer, a former member of Team East Coast in the 2006 X Games.
"It was eight blocks. Some of the block might be standing, but anything that was wood is gone. At least with a hurricane or flood, you can gut the place and start renovating, but with this, you have to completely start over. Half of my friends work for the businesses there. I've worked at Jack and Bills myself. This is going to have a further effect on the whole area."
Casino Pier is one of the most high-profile breaks on the East Coast. Known to shape average swells into pumping barrels and workable walls on both sides, it was home to the Eastern States Surfing Championships in 1967, several Grog's Seaside Pro contests on the budding IPS tour in the 1970s and later the ASP's Garden State Pro in 1988 won by Rob Bain. Kelly Slater surfed Eastern Surfing Association events here in the early 1980s.
Since then, it has been home to numerous pro and amateur events, most notably the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match, which was looking to celebrate its 10th annual event this fall after Sandy wiped it off the calendar last October. This weekend, the Foster's Belmar Pro is expected to bring thousands of people to Belmar, approximately 18 miles north.
Several area surf shops economically depend on this boardwalk's draw. Many of the firefighters are also wave riders.
"We've asked so much of our residents and first responders to come back, and we're going to have to ask the same of our people tomorrow morning," Seaside Heights mayor Bill Akers told News 12 NJ on Thursday evening, "I certainly hope people still have a little gas in the tank."