Lawmakers were warned a huge fire could hit Pinelands. Then one did
Last month, New Jersey lawmakers were warned in a special legislative hearing the Pinelands is a fire-danger ticking time bomb.
They were told when it explodes, the result will be significant loss of life and major damage — unless steps are taken to address the over-growth of the forest.
And then, last week, a dangerous fire quickly spread in the Pinelands, wiping out thousands of acres and causing significant air pollution because of the smoke the fire produced.
No one was killed, but forest experts say if the blaze had started a few miles to the east, the ultimate outcome could have been tragic.
Bob Williams, a forest expert and owner of Pine Creek Forestry Management Company, said on the day that fire started temperatures were warm and it was windy. (The company's owner is a different person than the New Jersey 101.5 traffic reporter of the same name).
“When a fire gets started on a day like that it really, really takes off, and it’s very difficult to suppress it let alone put it out," he said.
He called this kind of blaze “essentially a hurricane of fire. It’s not a fire you’re going to put out. It’s a firestorm.”
The recent Pine Barrens blaze happened in an area where it didn't immediately endanger lives or infrastructure, and Williams credited "an excellent forest fire service that was able to go out in front of this fire and contain it.”
So what are the steps that need to be taken to reduce the risk of a dangerous wildfire threatening South Jersey next week, month or next year?
Williams said the Forest Fire Service is already doing some prescribed burns, and “we certainly need to do more of that, but our ability to do what we need to do on the scale is extremely limited.”
He said manpower is needed to set and control a prescribed burn, but “the amount of days that are acceptable, where we can make sure it won’t turn into a wildfire, is extremely limited, so we’re up against it.”
Williams said we also need to remove trees from the forest, and its density must be addressed. Taking out overgrown underbrush can help prevent it from accelerating the spread of flames if a fire does break out.
We should be focusing on where are the sensitive areas where we can protect life and property,” Williams said.
He said taking these steps will not only lower wildfire danger, it will also encourage the proliferation of wildlife and different plant species we find in the woods.
Williams stressed in nature, wildfires function as a forest management tool, so “we’re suggesting trees be removed based on the ecology of the forest.”
He said the wildfire in the Pinelands at the end of last month spewed “more CO2 in the air in 24 hours than all the cars in New Jersey do in a year, and now there’s dead trees rotting away releasing all of that carbon.”
But as to whether efforts to protect and manage the forests will actually happen, Williams has serious doubts.
He said there is agreement among foresters and the DEP on what should be done to minimize the risk of a catastrophic fire in the future, but in Jersey the approach seems to be “let’s get a commission together to talk about this for three years and by then everybody is bored and we’ll go and do something else.”
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state Forest Fire Service and the Division of Parks and Forestry, was contacted for comment, but declined to provide any.
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