Jeremy Weber wanted to burn 700 acres of wooded area in Hamilton Township and central Atlantic County before fire season started this month.

No such luck.

Weber, a state fire warden, could do controlled burns on only 402 acres before this week’s northeaster set in, drenching the forests and possibly closing the door on thinning the region’s trees before the start of a potentially dangerous forest fire season.

State officials have warned that the region’s forests are overloaded with long-dead trees, blown down in June’s storms and by November’s Hurricane Sandy, potentially adding fuel to fires that could make them larger and hotter.

The June storms were the worst, knocking down mature trees in full leaf. Those leaves have dried, Weber said, but are still attached to branches, providing a way for a ground fire to leap into the trees.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 acres were on the list for controlled burns, the Forest Fire Service said last week. However, above-average rainfall this winter has prevented crews from tackling much of it.

New Jersey regards March 15 as the official start of forest fire season, although in some years conditions do permit controlled burns until the end of the month. After that point, daytime temperatures typically rise while humidity drops and winds blow strong. Water drains quickly in the Pinelands soil, leaving twigs, branches and leaves vulnerable to sparks.

The state developed maps in 2010 to identify potential trouble spots, said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The maps are developed by looking at historic data and local vegetation.

Atlantic County’s most dangerous spots are north of Hammonton and Buena Vista near Mizpah. Portions of Galloway near Port Republic and Egg Harbor City, as well as parts of Egg Harbor Township near Cardiff and Bargaintown, also face heightened risks.

Other dangerous areas include northern Upper Township, Woodbine and the vicinity in Cape May County; the Route 55 corridor in Cumberland County; and the Tuckerton-New Gretna area in Ocean and Burlington counties.

On Tuesday, Weber, 37, directed a 27-acre controlled burn off Old Baker Road in the Mizpah section of Hamilton Township.

It may have been decades since this woods was last burned, the Mays Landing resident said, describing the layers of pine needles, shrubbery and leaves that lay thickly on the forest floor. The goal of this day’s burn was to establish a fuel break, limiting the spread of any wildfires by choking off the supply.

Helping was Rusty Fenton, 48. Like others, he was concerned about the potential for fire. “This sandy soil, we get some sunshine, a little wind … it doesn’t take a lot to dry out.”

Fenton, a fire warden, said private landowners and public agencies have also sought help burning back the forest, but the rain has limited them.

Others have taken a different approach.

Several hundred communities across the country participate in a national program called Firewise, which seeks to reduce fire risks before the start of a wildfire, and therefore reduce the overall damage. The program offers access to grants, programs and expertise through its website.

Among other things, the program encourages communities to use fire-resistant building materials and landscaping, create firebreaks and remove underbrush and low tree limbs near homes.

Popular in the west and the Ozarks, the program in New Jersey has six active participants. Locally, they include the Barnegat communities of Horizons and Four Seasons at Mirage.

In Mays Landing, Paul Doran is on the Firewise committee at the Horizons at Woods Landing, a 280-acre age-restricted community off Old Egg Harbor Road in Hamilton Township.

The homeowners association started looking into the Firewise program after a fire in May 2010 burned a small, undeveloped portion of the community. A subsequent assessment by the state Forest Fire Service found about half of the homes vulnerable to a wildfire, Doran said.

The Forest Fire Service recommended thinning the trees, so a contractor hired by the community started started cutting back bushes and thinning trees by 40 percent in the most vulnerable 24 acres last week.

In all, the contractor will take down more than 1,000 trees, Doran said, mostly pitch pines. He encouraged others communities to take similar steps, particularly if they are encased in woodlands like Horizons at Woods Landing.

“People need to understand what they can do to help themselves, particularly in places like ours, which is a retirement community,” Doran said.

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046

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