Lightning ignited 3,500-acre N.J. Pinelands blaze, biggest in a decade

Lightning sparked a blaze that raced through New Jersey’s Wharton State Forest late last week and continued through the weekend, burning 3,500 acres, the largest Pinelands fire in a decade, according to state officials.

The fire started Wednesday evening in Washington Township, southern Burlington County, not far from Batsto Historic Village, when three trees were struck by lightning.

By Friday, smoke plumes were drifting over towns. Crews managed to contain the fire by Sunday, and a heavy rain helped.  No homes or business were threatened by the fire, which was in a remote area.

The fire was 100 percent contained and controlled as of Monday, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.  The New Jersey Forest Fire Service led the investigation into the cause. Local fire departments and other crews helped battle the blaze.

Officials said the fire was the largest in the Pinelands since June 2007. when a wildfire burned 3,500 acres, also in Wharton State Forest.  Just weeks before, in May 2007, 15,500 acres burned in Stafford and Barnegat Townships. That fire covered 24 square miles, destroyed five houses, and damaged 50.

The Pinelands National Reserve covers 1.1 million acres and accounts for about one-fifth of the state’s landmass. The ecosystem depends on naturally occurring wildfire for reproduction, as pines rely on fires to release seeds from pine cones.  Fires also clear out the buildup of fuel, such as dead trees. But most forest fires are caused by people, either accidentally or intentionally. The Pinelands present one of the most hazardous wildfire dangers in the nation because the fires burn extremely hot and spread quickly.

Also helping in the investigation were the state’s park and police departments, as well as the Burlington County fire marshal and the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety.