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U.S. military’s fire destroys trees, homes

Published May 25, 2007 7:14 PM

The fire that burned 20 square miles in southern New Jersey was officially declared under control on May 20. What made this fire different from other big ones, like the one on the border of Florida and Georgia where 365 square miles burned, is that it was set by the Air National Guard, practicing for warfare against Iraq.

There is a “gunnery range” in New Jersey, as well as in Nevada, California, Utah, Kansas, Florida and North Carolina. There used to be one in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for the Navy, but years of people’s struggle shut it down.

Air Force officials at the Warren Grove gunnery in New Jersey haven’t officially admitted their responsibility. But they did have two fire trucks standing by when some F-16s flying out of the air base in Atlantic City, about 25 miles south, practiced setting off flares to disrupt surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles. However, the two trucks weren’t enough to put out the fire that a flare started.

The Air Force is providing up to $25,000 in immediate emergency assistance to the dozens of families that suffered damage and will compensate them fully once its “investigation” is complete. It will also pay the costs of fighting the fire.

The fire was confined to a lightly developed area of South Jersey called the Pine Barrens. If the flames had jumped the Garden State Parkway—a major north-south road running down the New Jersey coast—thousands of new, expensive homes and resorts might have been destroyed. The press reported at most a few dozen houses were affected; two senior centers were destroyed.

This is not the first incident connected to this gunnery range. Three years ago, an F16 fired 25 cannon shells through the roof of a nearby school. Since it was a night exercise, no one was hurt. The roof cost $500,000 to replace.

Early incidents in 1999 and 2001 also involved fires. There have also been “accidental” weapons discharges outside the target area, as well as plane crashes.

The media were able to find some residents who say that the Air Force should just be more careful. But this incident seems to have swung public opinion against continued use of the Warren Grove gunnery range among the predominantly rural, working-class whites, with generations of family ties to the Pine Barrens.

The U.S. military is putting the lives and property of thousands of people at risk in order to train its troops. Of course, if the real purpose of the U.S. military—defending the profits and investments of U.S. big business at home and abroad—was laid out for all to see, there would be even less support for gunnery ranges such as Warren Grove.