NJ forest fire danger is elevated, fire whirls are possible
When the wildfire in the Wharton State Forest was first spotted Sunday morning it was burning in a small area, estimated to be about 30 acres.
Less than 24 hours later, the fire had destroyed more than 7,000 areas of forest, a section of a major highway, Route 206 was closed and a significant effort was underway to try to stop the blaze before it became a disaster.
The damage eventually spread to 11,000 acres and is expected to claim 15,000 by the time it is put out sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Greg McLaughlin, the New Jersey State Fire warden and Forest Fire Service chief, said initial efforts to contain the blaze were not successful because of dangerous weather conditions and the fact that the fire started in a remote section of the forest.
He said when humidity levels drop and the winds pick up, which was exactly what happened this past weekend, “that’s all going to be factors that are conducive to fire start and fire spread and fire growth because the vegetation that’s in front of that flaming front of fire is more ripe to burn.”
The Wharton State blaze quickly became very intense Sunday morning.
“It’s been a really long time since I saw fire whirls, I saw several of them,” McLaughlin said.
A fire whirl is a small whirlwind induced by fire, sort of like a mini fire tornado.
He explained when a fire breaks out in a part of the forest that is hard to get to, “there’s a lot of areas that are wet, too wet for equipment, trucks and bulldozers to go in without getting stuck, but not wet enough to stop fire from spreading through them.”
He noted in many parts of the forest, reaching a fire is hard if not impossible.
Getting to a fire in the forest can be tricky
“Some of the roads are well maintained and you can travel quickly. Other roads aren’t meant to be roads and they’re small and they’re not maintained," McLaughlin saod.
He said if crews are unable to get equipment close to a wildfire when it starts, “we’re going to start to light fire to fight fire with fire, and burn out all of the vegetation essentially around the fire so it cannot spread any further in all directions.”
McLaughlin pointed out that while New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, 42% of the state is forested and almost half of all homes and buildings in the Garden State are located right next to a forest.
He said for the next several months when fire danger levels shoot higher in New Jersey, “we’ll staff our towers on those kinds of days, we’ll ready our people, we have a large part-time workforce that supports us and we make contingency plans.”
New Jersey has three forest fire divisions — north, central and south — with resources that can be reallocated when a significant fire threat develops in a particular part of the state.
David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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