Days of strong winds and low humidity coupled with a dry winter and early spring have created dangerous fire conditions across much of the state.
But South Jersey has effectively become a tinderbox as the conditions merge with consistently gusty winds and the lack of leaves on trees.
“Our numbers indicate that we’re one match away from Armageddon,” Assistant Division Warden Bill Donnelly said. “Right now, throughout the state, probably some of the most severe conditions are here in the southern part of the state.”
All of New Jersey is officially considered abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Monitor, and the effects on South Jersey already have been significant. Forest fire crews are working 9-hour shifts instead of mostly working on an on-call basis. Farmers growing certain crops have begun irrigating much earlier than usual. And open burning in wooded areas is banned unless the fire is on an elevated fireplace.
“I think this last week’s dryness and continued dessication, if you will, has kind of tipped us over (to drought),” said David Robinson, state climatologist and professor at Rutgers University.
Since Jan. 1, only 7.14 inches of rain has fallen at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, 4.51 inches below normal. Statewide, the first three months of the year averaged out to the third-driest period on record, Robinson said.
The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings — warning of critical fire conditions — every day since Thursday, an unusually long streak. While red flag conditions are not expected Tuesday, the weather service said in its forecast outlook that critical fire-weather conditions are likely again Thursday, this weekend and into next week.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Lawrence Hajna said two fires near Winslow Township, Camden County, were now fully contained, but burned a total of 400 acres. A fire burned 300 acres in Lakehurst near McGuire Air Force Base. Twenty acres burned in Barnegat Township by Tuesday afternoon.
The fire near Tabernacle and Woodland townships in Burlington County was 75 percent contained as of 4 p.m. Tuesday and likely will burn more than 1,000 acres. Forest service officials have been so busy fighting the fires popping up that they’ve not had a chance to tabulate how how many acres have burned since April 2, the last time they released statistics noting the increase of fires this year compared with 2011.
“I think what makes this situation so unique is we are coming out of a very dry winter,” Hajna said. “There was virtually no snowfall and very precious little rain and now we have conditions repeated; weak cold fronts causing wind, but not bringing any rain.”
On top of that, the forest canopy still has not come into leaf, which means the sun can heat and dry the ground, Hajna said. “Right now the needles and leaves on the forest floor are dry as dust, so when you do get a wild fire that starts and windy conditions, it really does create a recipe for very serious situations.”
The fire service responded to 33 fires statewide Monday, a day with a red-flag warning and 35 mph winds, Hajna said. Donnelly said 10 of those fires were in the southern division, though nearly all those fires were just a couple of acres. Fire wardens that typically work on an on-call basis have been brought in to work 9-hour shifts, waiting for any sign of smoke to jump out to try to contain the flames, Donnelly said.
Because many of the southern division workers also are helping out with the 1,000-acre fire in southern Burlington County near Chatsworth, some of his crew is working about 20-hour days.
“Typically we’ll get a couple days a year like this, but they’re sporadic,” Donnelly said. “But we’ve been on such a roll here, with day after day, that it’s not very often that we’ve had conditions like this.”
Fire wardens and forestry officials aren’t the only ones concerned about the ongoing dryness. Warm days, sunny skies and an unusually warm winter meant the trees at Tuckahoe Nursery in Woodbine bloomed about a month earlier than usual.
But temperatures close to freezing at night and days of strong winds, along with low relative humidity, meant that the trees need much more water than they typically do this time of year. And since it hasn’t rained, nursery president Lindsay Clarkson must run his 15 diesel-fueled irrigating pumps two months earlier than usual.
“This drought couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Clarkson said. “We’re in the middle of the spring digging season, and the season has been shortened by a month.”
New Jersey American Water spokesman Peter Eschbach said that there is no concern for South Jersey in terms of water supply because water sources are mostly from groundwater, but officials will meet later this week to assess the supply throughout the state.
Farmers growing other crops also must contend with irrigating much sooner than planned, though a dry spring may not necessarily be a bad thing for certain farmers.
“I’d rather have things on the drier side, so I can control what I need rather than having no control whatsoever,” Hammonton farmer August Wuillermin said. “If you take a year like last year, you can’t control what God provides, so you can end up with a lot of (plant) disease problems.”
Wuillermin grows summer vegetables and most of his crops still are sitting in the greenhouse, waiting for the threat of cold nights to abate. He has not begun irrigating, but said if there is no significant rain within a few weeks, he may have to irrigate the bare soil just to ensure there’s enough moisture for when he transplants the seedlings into the ground.
However, Wuillermin said, the strong winds and dry ground have made working in fields much more exhausting than usual.
“You feel like you did 10 rounds with (boxer) Joe Frazier. It just beats you up,” he said.
While trees will gradually grow in their leaves, helping to abate the immediate fire risk, the long-term forecast for rain is not promising. While there is a chance for showers Wednesday, no significant rainfall is expected during the next week, according to the National Weather Service.
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