Walking along the trail at Batsto Village through Wharton State Forest, the damage done is evident.
Charred wood is all around following a fire that damaged about 3,500 acres of land last month.
The smell of smoke lingers as you walk in from the Batsto visitor’s center and into the woods.
But the scene isn’t as apocalyptic as one may think. Instead of stretches of abused bark and fallen trees, the forest scenery is a blend of black and green, due to the control efforts of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
While weaker trees and brush were destroyed, stronger trees suffered damage only to the bottom of their trunks.
But through the charred and blackened grounds of the forest, green grass is beginning to sprout, and that new life is part of a scientific cycle that takes place with overgrown land being damaged and starting from scratch. As the state Department of Environmental Protection begins the recovery process for the forest, some believe the fire served a positive purpose.
The wildfire began with a lightning strike to several trees, the DEP said last week. The fire then spread to other trees before it was discovered July 20. Batsto Village hiking trails were closed while the Forest Fire Service contained the blaze.
Now, it’s moving on and maintaining what is left.
Greg McLaughlin, assistant state fire warden for the Forest Fire Service, said he and his team are monitoring the forest, as there are still potential hot spots where fire can pop up again.
WHARTON STATE FOREST — The wildfire that burned 3,500 acres since Thursday began with a ligh…
“Once we get significant rain, that will essentially cool and quell or smolder these hot spots,” McLaughlin said.
Looking further down the road, McLaughlin said the most cost-effective program is prescribed burning.
Controlled burns are done typically in the cooler months to reduce fuel buildups and decrease the likelihood of hotter fires like the one that occurred in July.
McLaughlin said the Forest Fire Service will learn from the most recent blaze and tailor future prescribed burns based on that.
“We know confidently, in years to come, that fire won’t be necessary again. Generally it’s about seven years,” McLaughlin said.
Meanwhile, the Forest Fire Service will look at roads and trails that were used to access the fire and see if they need rehabilitation. They will also look at the damaged trees that pose a hazard and act accordingly.
WHARTON STATE FOREST — The wildfire burning since Thursday above Batsto in Burlington County…
“We don’t just walk away and put it down in the books,” McLaughlin said. “Once the smoke disappears, no pun intended, people tend to move on. But we’ll continue to look at rehabilitating the forest and continuing to prevent these large-scale fires in the future.”
But some believe these fires provide a boost to the ecosystem.
Bob Williams is the president of Pine Creek Forestry, of Clementon, Camden County, which has provided forestry services for 25 years to corporate and private land owners. Williams consults with hundreds of land owners and has worked with the state as well.
He said a fire like the one in Wharton is beneficial to the forest and the wildlife that live in it.
Williams said plants depend on mineral soil, and creating openings helps trees regenerate and lets animals like pine snakes benefit from exposure to the sun. Closed-canopy forests can cause problems for a natural habitat.
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“Plants and animals depend on the ecosystem to thrive, and having a forest get fire to open up is good,” Williams said. “I think the forest is already responding really well, and I think a lot of critters are happy that the fire came through.”
Williams is aware that the smoke can be detrimental to humans in the area, and he is not insisting that forests should burn down. Instead, he said we need to live with the Wharton fire and allow fire to play a bigger role in sustaining the Pinelands.
“It’s finding a balance. In the end, fire is the lifeline of the forest,” he said.
Williams said he thought the Forest Fire Service did a good job controlling the fire.
“We’ve got a problem here, and I think they did an excellent job of this. They got more fire on the ground, and that further enhances the management of the forest so that area won’t be a problem for years to come,” he said.