When about 28,000 property owners on Ocean County's storm-decimated barrier islands finally return to their homes, they're likely not to have natural gas for heating and cooking.

New Jersey Natural Gas is taking the extreme step of shutting down the conduits that lead to homes from Bay Head down to Long Beach, to bring a never-ending series of leaks and fires under control.

The flareups stem from uprooted homes and ruptured lines that can be traced straight back to Hurricane Sandy. NJNG says it's responded to more than 1,300 leaks in the first three days since the storm.

Persistent fires have undermined efforts to secure the islands and reach a safety declaration that will let people return to homes they haven't seen since last Sunday.

"We are shutting the valves off and we're going to vent the natural gas from the system," says spokesman Micah Rasmussen, who notes that it'll all happen in a matter of about four hours. "While that occurs, customers may smell a natural gas odor, depending on the wind."

Rasmussen says that NJNG crews only reached boots-on-the-ground stage in the past 24 hours, assisted by teams from New England to Maryland. "When we were finally able to reach the worst sections," he says, "the devastation was just far worse than anything that could have been seen from the air. It is beyond imagination."

From that point on, Rasmussen continues, the company won't respond to reports of leaks in that vicinity, because there won't be any gas in the system.

"The second thing to remember," he says, "is that you need to wait for the all clear from emergency responders to return," and that will be after electrical services are restored along with gas service.

The only fear the company has is that the lack of gas pressure will allow water into the inactive lines, requiring a massive replacement project that could last months.

There is no timeline at present for all operations to be completed.