Conditions Ripe for Wildfires in NJ

By Briana Vannozzi

Combine this time of year with dry conditions, low humidity and wind and you’ve got the recipe for wildfires. New Jersey is in the midst of a lingering dry spell and it’s got fire officials on high alert.

“Today we’re on patrol due to the high red flag warnings and the way my section is broken into we coordinate the trucks into a northern, a central and a southern area and we’ll patrol those different areas,” said New Jersey Forest Fire Service Section Forest Fire Warden Ashley House.

On Tuesday, firefighters struggled to contain a massive brush fire that burned hundreds of acres in Hudson County. It could be seen from the Turnpike, as caught on cell phone by a motorist.

“Spring is our peak fire season due to the weather patterns and the fact that the forest isn’t ‘greened-up’ yet. It’s still dormant, the leaves are still trying to come out so the sun is beating directly on the forest floor,” said NJ State Firewarden/Chief Bill Edwards.

“So when we have these higher of winds, it is really tough. We need to be able to get out in front of the head of the fire to be able to use a backing fire or the aviation units we have,” House said.

For New Jersey forest fire wardens, like House, patrol areas include sections of the 100 million acres of pinelands. The environmentally sensitive tract reaches seven counties, hundreds of communities and is highly flammable.

“A lot of the vegetation does burn very easily. The issue is, we also have a high population,” Edwards said.

Roughly 500,000 people live or work near the Pine Barrens, making its fire hazard the subject of a recent article by Rolling Stone Magazine.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service has taken up a number of recommendations since the last major Pine Barrens fire in 1963, which did kill seven people and burn 190,000 acres.

“We’ve got a lot more cooperators now and we’re able to get a lot more help,” Edwards said.

The department also completes prescribed burning, done from January through March. This year they burned almost 18,000 acres. Another recommendation they’ve met — adding more aircraft.

With conditions like today, helicopters will be prepped for flight hours in advance, should they be needed. They have the capacity to hold up to 325 gallons of water in buckets and if water sources are close enough, they can drop up to 6,000 gallons of water an hour.

“We’re doing what we can to prevent a fire disaster,” Edwards said.

Even with the department’s preparedness, they want citizens to remember fires are always a potential near forests like the pines and you really can prevent them.