MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP — Black ash rained onto John Murray’s front lawn Saturday as a blaze tore through thousands of acres of forest nearby.

The one-story Pasadena Road home he bought more than a decade ago is in the heart of the Pinelands, and over the years, he’s learned how to live amid wildfire threats each spring.

He meticulously rakes leaves off his grass and trims the low-hanging branches on his property, ensuring there’s little underbrush to fuel a fire or send it up his trees.

“It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Murray said Monday afternoon, the same day state officials announced an 11,600-acre blaze thought to be caused by humans had been contained.

The blaze, dubbed Spring Hill, was spotted Saturday afternoon in Penn State Forest in Woodland Township by officials stationed at the Apple Pie Hill and Cedar Bridge fire towers. It quickly spread from 30 acres to thousands, with heavy winds sending a burning odor as far as North Jersey.

Now, Murray and his neighbors want the state — which owns a majority of New Jersey’s forest land — to do its part by setting even more prescribed burns, which manage the buildup of flammable materials on the forest floor. The Legislature recently passed a bill allowing up to 40,000 acres of controlled burns annually, equal to about 2 percent of the nearly 2 million acres of forest land.

“They’ll do the same area every two or three years,” Murray said. “They put fire cuts in the forest before the burn to help prevent it from getting out of control. ... That takes a lot of manpower. If you don’t have more manpower, you can’t add new areas, I guess.”

This year, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service planned to set burns on 35,000 acres. In 2018, the state responded to more than 600 wildfires, the largest being a 901-acre blaze in Penn State Forest.

The biggest constraints on setting more burns, though, are time and weather, said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Burns are usually done during February and March, and the practice rests on having dry weather. This past year, the wettest year on record, made things more difficult, he said.

“The weather can shift so rapidly, like we saw this past weekend,” Hajna said. “It’s very weather dependent.”

At Lucille’s Country Cooking, an old-fashioned diner in Warren Grove, Jeff Pereira described the black smoke plume that loomed in the sky Saturday, a few miles from the Cedar Bridge home he’s owned since 1997. It brought back memories for him of a 2007 wildfire that was almost in his backyard.

Pereira likens Pinelands living to coastal living: Instead of moving a car ahead of flooding, he cleans up his lawn when low humidity is in the forecast. It’s just one of many sacrifices he and others make to live in peaceful isolation. Unlike Toms River residents 11 miles to the east, Murray wasn’t continuously checking for updates over the weekend because he doesn’t have cable or speedy internet.

This February and March, Pereira noticed an uptick in prescribed burns.

In years past, he said, the state typically set burns in the same spots, though he believes that is changing.

“They really branched out to a lot of new areas that I’ve seen,” he said. “That’s what we need.”

Saturday’s fire caused no damage to property and didn’t prompt emergency evacuations, mainly because it was sparked in a remote section of the Pinelands away from any developments.

Some worry the next time it happens could be in a more populated part of the Pinelands, such as Medford or Galloway township.

Bob Williams, a certified forester with Pine Creek Forestry Management, has said the answer moving forward is more prescribed burns.

But since forest fires are less frequent in New Jersey than in western states, Williams said, some residents are more detached from the problem.

“Fire is our friend,” Williams said Monday while pointing at charred trees in Chatsworth on Monday. Last month, he attended a hearing in Trenton warning lawmakers that a serious Pinelands wildfire is possible, similar to those seen in Paradise, California.

He is advocating for a more comprehensive state plan addressing the issue.

Another somewhat controversial forest management tool among environmentalists may be necessary, he said: state-led selective tree cutting. In New Jersey, there’s a tax incentive for some woodland owners to implement a state-approved tree-cutting plan.

Hajna said the state has done selective cutting on 4,000 acres since 2014, more than the past prior years combined. That essentially creates a line in the forest where wildfires will stop spreading, similar to how other perimeters like roads, streams and trenches work.

Mechanical cutting requires more resources and money, Hajna said, though the state hopes to increase its use in the future.

“We already have a policy that protects the Pinelands from development,” Williams said. “Now that we’ve taken 40 years and have kept (the Pinelands), how do we take care of that? The lifeblood of the Pinelands is the forest.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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