MANASQUAN, N.J. -- Since Superstorm Sandy smashed the Jersey shore, owners of flood-damaged homes up and down the coast feared something else might happen to their properties, sitting vacant and largely unwatched.
Those fears came true for a dozen homeowners Wednesday morning in this popular Jersey shore beach town, which is still reeling from damage Sandy inflicted in October.
An early morning fire damaged 12 houses on or near the beachfront, destroying two.
The one small bit of good news was that because most of the homes had already been damaged by the storm, they were not occupied when the fire broke out and no one was injured. Still the fire touched an exposed nerve.
"We were all worried about looting, but the town and the National Guard did a great job of protecting the area. But now this," said Allyson Aiello, who lives a few doors down from where the fire began and whose home was not damaged by it.
As fire crews mopped up, debris cleanup from the storm continued along the beachfront. A front-end loader scooped sand and building rubble from a storm-damaged home across from the two homes that were destroyed by the fire.
Fire Chief Mike Galos said the blaze broke out at 5:41 a.m. in a house on First Avenue that had come through the storm relatively unscathed. It spread to an adjacent home, destroying both. Ten other houses nearby and on the Manasquan beachfront suffered various degrees of damage.
Galos said he knew of no obvious cause for the fire, but noted that electric and natural gas services had recently been restored to the area.
"It could have been electrical, it could have been a contractor, or it could have been something else entirely," he said.
The chief said there was no explosion or other typical indication of a natural gas-fed fire, but said nothing has been ruled out yet.
Some of the homes damaged by the fire had come through the storm with repairable damage, and repairs had already begun on some and could have contributed to the rapid spread of the flames in the house where the fire began.
"It was being renovated after the storm, so there was no sheet rock or interior walls," Galos said. "It allowed for rapid travel (of flames) to neighboring houses."
The close proximity of homes along the beachfront also played a role in the spread of the fire; no more than five feet separates some homes.