CAMDEN, N.J. — Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper on Friday morning walked the perimeter of two blocks that were largely leveled by a fire a day earlier, taking pictures with his cell phone.
In case anyone asked later, he wanted documentation of some of the obstacles — beyond temperature near 100 degrees — that hampered his depleted department's ability to battle the fire.
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He photographed a fire hydrant a block away from the hottest part of the fire. Like two others nearby, the brass threadings used to connect hoses had been stolen, leaving the hydrants unusable and delaying the ability to begin the firefight in the crucial early moments after firefighters arrived Thursday afternoon.
Unable to take water from a nearby hydrant, he said, it took six engine companies to pump water several blocks from the Cooper River.
As they got water, the chief said, crews watched buildings that looked like they could have been saved catch fire.
"When you don't get no water, you can't do anything," said Harper, a longtime firefighter who became chief in January.
The fire was devastating, burning at least parts of about 23 buildings, leaving at least 20 people without homes and dozens more at least temporarily without electricity and contending with smoke damage.
Harper said three firefighters and one civilian were hospitalized, all for smoke inhalation. None had life-threatening injuries.
Harper said it might take weeks to determine what sparked the fire, which is believed to have started in the long-vacant building that was formerly home to the Reliable Tire Co.
Like much of Camden, a city that consistently ranks as one of the nation's most impoverished, the corner of the Parkside neighborhood where the fire broke out is a hodge-podge of businesses and homes, some vacant and some occupied.
The water wasn't the only challenge.
In January, the city, facing a deep fiscal crisis, laid off about one-third of its firefighters. Several have been hired back. But Harper said the smaller force means that reinforcements from elsewhere have to be brought in sooner.
And that's difficult, he said, because they don't know the lay of the land in a city that's so different from its suburbs.
Crews had to rest frequently because of the heat of the day, the hottest since July.
The thick plume of smoke meant the PATCO trains that take commuters from southern New Jersey to jobs in Philadelphia had to be shut down during the evening rush hour. Trains resumed by 7 p.m.
Around 8 p.m., there was a new environmental problem: a thunderstorm.
While the rain was welcomed as an aid, the lightning wasn't. Ladders positioned to fight the fire from above had to be lowered for fear they'd be struck.
By the time the fire was under control later Thursday night, power transformers had melted, some propane tanks burst, several homes were reduced to rubble and a van was left charred almost beyond recognition.
Harper said embers fell throughout the neighborhood, igniting a fire on a porch more than a block from the fire.
A building across the street full of wood pallets and sawdust was kept from burning.
On Friday, demolition crews were knocking down the remaining unstable walls of the tire building, in the hopes that investigators could soon get to the area where the fire is thought to have started. Crews from the electric company PSEG were assessing how they might be able to restore power.
And Walter Nokes, who lives a block from the fire, said he had to keep his daughter home from school. All her clothes smelled of smoke, he said.
One tidy house on one of the devastated blocks appeared untouched by the fire.
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"That house," Chief Harper said as he looked at it, "is blessed."
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