New Jersey officials are performing prescribed burns in the Pinelands National Reserve and across the state ahead of the upcoming wildfire season.
Forest Fire Service workers will set prescribed burns on about 35,000 acres throughout February and March, mostly on state-owned property, to get rid of underbrush and leaves that fuel forest fires in the spring, the Department of Environmental Protection said.
Forest fire season typically spans April and May in New Jersey, when warm and windy weather, increased day length, lack of new leaf growth and low humidity make forest debris more likely to ignite.
“A safe and effective method of burning away materials that can fuel wildfires, prescribed burns can also help keep forest ecosystems healthy by improving wildlife habitats, managing competing species of plants and trees, controlling insects and disease, and recycling important nutrients into the soil,” said Ray Bukowski, assistant commissioner for natural and historic resources, in a news release.
Personnel with the Forest Fire Service will use handheld torches to set small fires that burn away fallen leaves, pine needles, branches and debris.
South Jersey, home to the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, is especially prone to wildfires, the DEP said, because the ecosystem has adapted to depend on burns for releasing seeds for reproduction. Three years ago, a forest fire ripped through 75 acres in Maurice River Township and burned four mobile homes.
Last year, the state responded to 629 wildfires. While most were one acre or less, the largest wildfire was a 901-acre fire in Penn State Forest in Burlington County.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation last August allowing licensed professionals to administer controlled burns to create habitat for stressed species and rid forests of vegetative fuels that feed wildfires. It also provides a liability exemption if burns are conducted according to established rules.
The law requires homeowners and government officials be notified before burns near private property.
Some are unhappy with the new rules.
Jeff Tittel, Sierra Club of New Jersey president, says the law doesn’t address air pollution concerns and stricter standards are needed.
“While prescribed burns can be at times important conservation tools,” he said, “there needs to be much clearer guidelines and standards to make sure we are not impacting people and wildlife with air pollution, and that there is proper liability if the burn gets out of control.”
In state history, the worst forest fire disaster was in 1963 in Atlantic, Ocean and Burlington counties. It covered about 190,000 acres and killed seven people while destroying hundreds of buildings.