I didn’t see the BNN alert until about 2 p.m., after the fires had been burning a while. I was in Jersey City when it happened, so I had to rush down Routes 1 & 9, over to Route 3 and up Route 17 to get to Carlstadt where the flames were eating through acres in the Meadowlands.
I pulled up to a side road along the meadows, where a big black plume of smoke was rising in the distance. As I got out of my car, a man yelled from one of the warehouses. “Buddy, the cops have been kicking everybody out of there.”
Just as I got back in my car to move, a Crown Victoria with tinted windows pulled up. I could hear the swearing inside the car. I rolled down my windows as an officer emerged.
“I don’t care who you are,” he said as I opened my mouth, press credentials at the ready. “Get out of here!”
“Where should I go?” I managed to say. “Connecticut,” he barked back.
I drove two blocks over and parked my car.
The fire had covered 60 acres at this point. The Meadowlands are hundreds of acres of marshland abutted by everything Jersey. Mostly it’s factories and warehouses. The weather has been dry and windy, and the red flag warnings have become a daily occurrence. The fire trucks just kept coming. I was going to be here a while.
I ran to the trails that jutted into the reeds, where people were gathering to watch the flames inch closer. By the time I got there, though, the police were kicking everyone out. I interviewed a couple eyewitnesses. “It just took over and didn’t stop,” one of them, a 17 year old kid with a sense of adventure, told me.
I watched the smoke grow for another two hours, as the fire swept from the Izod Center toward the New Jersey Turnpike. In the meantime I talked to a couple more eyewitnesses, and tried to talk the warehouse employees into letting me onto their rooves. One pointed out a big, yellow semi truck sitting in a parking lot at the edge of the meadow. “That hasn’t moved in years,” he said. So I climbed on top of it.
Mostly, though, I waited.
I was in my car for more than an hour, focused on the screen of my laptop as the flames continued to eat up the reeds just a couple yards away. Eventually I looked out the window and saw the flames had grown high. Really high. I stored my laptop and ran back out.
Fire crews had begun lighting backfires, controlled blazes that would create a buffer zone between the wild fire and the buildings along the edge of the meadow. The sun was setting.
I started shooting photos and video. The flames were right there, sometimes 20 feet high. It was hot, and I’ve never shot a fire that big before, so it was hard to expose for the flames and the figures of firefighters keeping watch with their hoses.
In the background was the New York Skyline.
Eventually, emergency crews got the blaze under control. They kept pulling tires from the field, piling them up in parking lots along the meadows. The deputy fire chief from Carlstadt told me more than 25 departments provided mutual aid, and I could still hear the sirens when I filed my last story around 11 p.m.
Thursday night, I went to sleep to the sound of sirens.