New Jersey state government often goes wrong, and divisiveness can leave public issues unresolved or far short of the best outcome. The new law on prescribed burns of forests and fields in the state shows how right things can go.
For more than a decade, diverse nonprofit and environmental groups — including NJ Audubon, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the N.J. Farm Bureau — have worked with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service on updating the state’s use these proactive fires, also called controlled burns.
They analyzed proven methods and regulations in other states and at the federal level, and crafted rules that will keep residents and firefighters safer while giving some habitats the fire they naturally need.
When the bipartisan legislation was ready, it passed both the state Senate and Assembly, unanimously. Gov. Phil Murphy signed it toward the end of last month. Changes will begin with the next prescribed-burn season, which runs from late fall through early spring depending on conditions.
Ecosystems evolved with repeated fires and require them to maintain the complex balance of species, as well as avoid destructive blazes fueled by an accumulation of leaves, pine needles and brush.
But natural fires threaten people and property. Last year, a lightning strike started a fire that burned 3,500 acres of the Pinelands in South Jersey. Fortunately, the fire service and other responders were able to contain it without loss of life or homes.
The law gives the Forest Fire Service more flexibility. Prescribed burns can be done whenever conditions are optimal. The Bureau of Forest Fire Management can carry out burns in any area in danger of wildfire.
They can be done on private land if needed and fees are charged to cover their cost. And they can be done to achieve ecosystem diversity.
That’s especially important in South Jersey’s Pinelands, where many rare and protected species evolved to take advantage of less destructive and more frequent fires. Some species release their seeds after a fire has cleared ground for them to grow.
Private landowners and nonprofit groups also will be able to apply the new guidelines, using licensed and trained professionals or in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Protection. The law reduces liability if prescribed burns are conducted according to established rules. And at least 30 days before a prescribed burn, local officials and others must be notified.
Wildfires degrade air quality and can cause serious health problems with their intense smoke, often for prolonged periods, says the U.S. Forest Service. “Controlled burning is used to minimize the emissions and adverse impacts of smoke on public health and the environment,” it states.
The state Forest Fire Service has had an annual goal of prescribed burning of 20,000 acres on state-owned and other lands. Typically it falls 5,000 acres short of that goal, but under the new law, it will now be positioned to use this tool on about 30,000 acres a year, said the state’s forest fire chief.
New Jersey has a long history of effective use of controlled burns and wildlife managers, scientists and firefighting agencies have learned from it, according to the state fire warden.
With the new law on prescribed burns, which catches up with similar laws in 16 other states, New Jersey returns to a position of leadership on this important public service.