The state can now use prescribed burns to create needed habitat for stressed species, and can expand the use of controlled fires to rid forests of vegetative fuels that feed wildfires.
Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed A1675, which allows licensed, trained professionals to administer burns on state or private land independently or in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The law also provides an exemption from liability if prescribed burns are conducted according to established rules.
“We will have a significant number of new opportunities to use fire as a tool, not only to protect areas but to manage habitat,” said New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin, whose division is part of the DEP. “The law (previously) had restricted us specifically to use it only to reduce fuels and hazards.”
He said the Forest Fire Service has used controlled burns on about 15,000 acres per year, and will now be in a position to use them as a tool on about 30,000 acres per year, weather permitting.
“If you follow a plan, conduct it properly and with proper training, you are protected from liability,” McLaughlin said.
The nonprofit New Jersey Audubon celebrated the new law.
“This law is the culmination of a well over a decade’s worth of work by New Jersey Audubon and our partners, including the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the New Jersey Farm Bureau,” said New Jersey Audubon Vice President of Government Relations Kelly Mooij. “Increasing the capacity of trained professionals to conduct prescribed burns will benefit New Jersey’s residents, forests, and wildlife in unique habitats such as the Pinelands.”
Not everyone was happy with it, though, including New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
“There are serious problems with this law because it does not properly address air pollution, safety concerns and liability,” Tittel said. “Under this law liability is limited, which means people can get careless.”
Fire is a normal and necessary process helping to ensure healthy habitat and has been unnaturally suppressed, Mooij said.
“It is critical for our wildlife, particularly in the Pinelands, where many rare species depend upon the role fire plays in the ecosystem by providing for their specific habitat needs,” she said.
It requires homeowner notification prior to burning near private property. Similar laws already exist in 16 states, including Pennsylvania, Mooij said.