Controlled burns are planned for thousands of acres statewide this year, and the urgency to complete the work before fire season begins in two weeks is growing because of storm debris.
However, the weather is making it harder for forestry workers reduce the wildfire risk. Rainfall has been well above average in February and all winter.
“If this weather doesn’t start to cooperate with us real soon, you won’t see any prescribed burning going on,” said Bill Donnelly, assistant division warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. That’s because forestry officials have a narrow window in which to conduct the burns, Donnelly said.
Weather has not been kind to the forests of South Jersey in the past year. Last year, the forest fire season seemingly went on for months as an exceptionally warm and dry spring created tinderbox conditions. Then there was the violent windstorm called a derecho that swept across South Jersey overnight June 30, downing thousands of trees on public and private land. Four months later, Hurricane Sandy struck, bringing a foot of rain and high winds.
Tree damage from Sandy in areas of South Jersey where the derecho swept through was significantly less than where the derecho did not strike, Donnelly said. But. “either way, that fuel is on the ground now, which certainly poses a problem and adds more fuel to the fires, which makes them hotter. Hotter fires, bigger fires.”
March 15 is designated as the official start of fire season because, traditionally, that is when daytime temperatures begin to rise, humidity begins to drop, winds tend to be high and leaves, twigs and branches on the forest floor have dried out to a point where they can easily be ignited.
The forest fire service has between 10,000 acres and 15,000 acres on the list for controlled burn this year, which is about the maximum amount it considers, Donnelly said. However, unless the weather dries out, the amount of acreage that can be burned will be significantly reduced, he said.
Rainfall for February totaled 5.16 inches at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, which is 2.29 inches above normal, according to National Weather Service records. That’s a stark difference from last year, when only 1.73 inches of rain fell in February.
Statewide, rainfall is well above average, but Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties have received the most precipitation this winter, said David Robinson, state climatologist and Rutgers University professor.
“Nobody is on the short end (statewide) for precipitation. But down in the pinelands, all you need is a mild week or two with little rain and you have fires burning.”
Contact Sarah Watson:
Follow @acpresssarah on Twitter