Controlled Burn

Frank Holliday smokes a cigar and starts a controlled burn with his drip torch near Stockton University in on Wednesday November 23, 2016. (Viviana Pernot / Staff Photographer)

The second wettest February on record and a March with four nor’easters is making it difficult for wildland firefighters to perform controlled burns.

The burns, fires set intentionally to eliminate excess fuel built up on the forest floor, typically take place in February, but as a result of the wet weather, they have been delayed several weeks.

But despite the delays, there appears to be no greater risk this fire seasons, officials said.

Wildfires are causing more damage to homes and businesses each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This makes controlled burning, or hazard reduction burning, more crucial to South Jersey each year. According to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, prescribed burns help reduce forest fire risk before prime wildfire season, which typically begins in early spring. During this time, fallen leaves from the autumn before and broken branches from winter storms are abundant.

This spring also is likely to be dry, windy and warm. These conditions, coupled with lack of new leaf growth, makes debris more likely to dry out and create blazes across the state.

“These prescribed burns help prevent wildfires, reduce the intensity of these fires, and provide a foundation for safer, more effective fire suppression and protection operations,” said Greg McLaughlin, acting chief of the state Forest Fire Service.

Controlled burning ideally begins during the heart of winter.

“We try to begin controlled burning doing the month of January, depending on the weather. February is really when we would like to get going, though,” said Bill Donnelly, fire warden for the Forest Fire Service’s Division C.

Donnelly is responsible for an area that includes Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties. Typically, rain does not prove to be much of an issue in delaying burning, and the higher sun angle can dry out the ground effectively.

“With the high sun angle, two or three days after rain falls, we are usually able to burn in February,” Donnelly said.

But this February, which included 6.43 inches of precipitation, proved troublesome. As of March 23, just 867 acres in Atlantic County and 248 acres in Cape May County have been under a prescribed burn, the Forest Fire Service reported.

“We burned on the second of February and did not go out again until the 28th, just because of how incredibly wet it was,” Donnelly added.

He said snow, not rain, causes the biggest delays to prescribed burns. That is because the snow needs to first melt, then the wet ground needs to dry out, adding an extra step. To add insult to injury, Atlantic City International Airport has had 9.6 inches of snow in March so far, the fourth snowiest March in recorded history.

Therefore, “we are a little behind in our burning for this season.” Donnelly said.

The Forest Fire Service usually wraps its burn season in March. The immediate forecast will not put a damper on its fires. Mostly dry weather is expected until next Thursday. Temperatures will be in the 40s until Monday, rising into the 50s for the rest of next week.

“The snow on the ground now will melt quickly. By Monday, we should be burning again. We are scheduled to end on April 1st,” Donnelly concluded.

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