About a quarter of the 400 firefighters who battled the blaze Thursday remained on the scene Friday morning, and heavy equipment was poised to move in and start poking through the rubble once firefighters extinguished the last burning pockets.
Authorities said Friday the fire that raged for eight hours had destroyed about five blocks of boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights; they had estimated Thursday night that eight blocks had burned.
"There's not much left" in the affected areas, said Brian Gabriel, Ocean County's fire coordinator. "It looks like a couple of bombs went off. It's pretty much complete devastation."
Authorities began making tentative plans to rebuild the boardwalk, most of which had just been redone in time for Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. Boardwalk merchants were numb as they pondered the second major disaster to befall them in 11 months.
"We just reopened June 1, went through the whole summer trying to stay open, and now this happens," said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade, which was one of 32 Seaside Park boardwalk businesses damaged in the fire. "We're wiped out again. It's just unimaginable."
He said business was down by two-thirds this summer because of the fallout from Sandy, which filled his arcade with water and sand and ruined inventory, game machines and computers.
"It was just enough to survive," Shauger said. "We were really looking forward to next year. And we're still looking forward to next year."
Seaside Park officials began plans Friday morning to rebuild their part of the boardwalk, at the southern end where the fire began Thursday afternoon near a frozen custard stand. Bob Martucci, the borough administrator, said it will cost $600,000 to rebuild the borough-owned boardwalk; individual businesses are privately owned and would not be included in that cost, he said.
Arson investigators began looking into the cause of the fire Thursday night and continued Friday morning, which is routine with a fire of this size. Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, said there was no indication Friday that the fire appeared suspicious, though a cause had not been determined.
It could have been much worse. On Thursday, as the fire pushed northward despite the frantic efforts of firefighters to contain it, 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 spread 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 farther into Seaside Heights.
"That appears to have done the trick," Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.
Seaside Park Councilwoman Nancy Koury said the fire caused several million dollars' worth of damage.