STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — Skittish about smoke on the horizon since a 2007 forest fire chased some residents from their homes, two southern Ocean County communities would like the state Forest Fire Service to tell them sooner when controlled burns are planned.
“The public is apprehensive about seeing smoke because of the wildfire in 2007. This is still a fresh and raw memory,” Township Administrator Jim Moran said.
“We’ve been hearing lately constant warnings about dry conditions and brush fires, so it would be good to know what is going on ahead of time,” he said.
The township is pushing for notification after a controlled burn conducted in Warren Grove last month caused a blitz of phone calls to the Stafford Township Police Department, Mayor John Spodofora said.
Spodofora said the township did not learn of the controlled burn until the day it was conducted.
Southern Ocean County residents remember well the devastating effect fire can have on their pinelands community.
A fighter jet at the Warren Grove bombing range dropped a flare in 2007 and caused a wildfire that destroyed 17,000 acres and forced many evacuations in the township
Just one week after the forest fire, the township implemented a new policy to address the issue of residents’ inability to get safety information fast enough. A township employee is now assigned to the Emergency Operations Center whenever it is open in order to issue public updates through the township’s website and cable access channel 22.
The township also upgraded its reverse 911 system, which it uses to contact residents via pre-recorded messages with information about ongoing or imminent emergencies.
Officials said this week that they want to be able to use that system more in order to notify the public about impending controlled burns to dispel concerns about potential emergencies, Moran said.
Spodofora said the township wants to work with the state Forest Fire Service to be notified quicker about planned prescribed burns because it would save manpower and stress.
“I’d like to have at least two weeks notice so we can have the opportunity to post the information on our website, and if it’s in an approximate residential area we can also use our reverse 911 system,” Moran said.
Moran and Spodofora said the largest percentage of concerned calls is coming from some of the township’s senior citizen communities.
“This is because most of these communities are located in the most western portion of the township where the majority of the controlled burns are happening,” Spodofora said.
A recent controlled burn also led to worried calls to Barnegat Township police, said Lt. Keith Germain.
“Our dispatchers called and checked to confirm there was a controlled burn taking place and then the information was disseminated through the township Police Department’s Nixle information system,” Germain said.
Germain also said earlier notifications would go a long way to helping his township calm residents’ fears.
In an emailed response, Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the Forest Fire Service makes every attempt to notify local officials, including volunteer fire departments, about upcoming prescribed burns.
Following the 2007 Warren Grove Wildfire, the Forest Fire Service and New Jersey Pinelands Commission entered into a Wildfire Safety Initiative with both Stafford and Barnegat Townships, Hajna said.
The initiative included holding monthly meetings with town officials, police, fire, emergency management personnel as well as the military.
Hajna said the DEP will review its communication process and “address any issues.”
“If we missed a key individual at the local level regarding the recent burn in Warren Grove, it was entirely an oversight and will be corrected,” Hajna said.
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