As wildfire burns through 15,000 acres, NJ officials issue plea to public
The Wharton State Forest fire that began as a small blaze on Sunday morning will have destroyed an estimated 15,000 acres before it’s completely put out, making it the largest wildfire in New Jersey in the past 15 years.
As crews continued to work on Tuesday to completely extinguish the blaze, smoke spread out over some regions of the state, causing hazy conditions and some air quality issues.
According to Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, this didn’t have to happen.
He said most wildfires are caused by carelessness and “it’s important to recognize that because it places us, within our power, to avoid circumstances like this.”
Illegal campfire suspected
During an update on the wildfire on Tuesday, New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin said in all likelihood an illegal, unattended makeshift campfire was the likely cause of the blaze.
In New Jersey, you need a permit to go camping in a designated campsite within a state forest, and your permit serves as your campfire permit, but only within that specified area.
“I don’t think it’s the case that people are generally of ill will," LaTourette said. "I don’t think anyone wants to see thousands of acres of our Pinelands go up in smoke, but all of our actions have consequences.”
Be careful in nature
“We’ve got to take our use of the natural environment really seriously, and that includes making sure that we’re avoiding forest fire risk," LaTourette said.
Because pitching a tent and building a campfire outside of a designated campsite is against the law, he noted “illegal campfires, campfires that are not fully extinguished continue to pose a great risk.”
He said all of us need to make sure we take care of each other in New Jersey “by making sure that we’re following the rules and avoiding wildfire risk, it’s serious, it’s not a Smoky Bear cartoon, it’s real.”
The investigation into the start of the wildfire is continuing and state officials have not ruled out possible criminal charges being filed once the probe has been completed.
David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at email@example.com
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