Wednesday, June 3, 2015

New Jersey forest fires bigger, more remote this year

A back burning effort was used to control a forest fire at the end of Livingston Avenue No in Bayville, NJ, which borders Beachwood, Thursday April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/The Asbury Park Press, Tanya Breen)
A back burning effort was used to control a forest fire at the end of Livingston Avenue No in Bayville, NJ, which borders Beachwood, Thursday April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/The Asbury Park Press, Tanya Breen)

Dry, windy conditions are leading to larger-than-normal wildfires in New Jersey - including one still burning this afternoon in Wharton State Forest.

As of last week, 377 fires had burned more than 2,000 acres of forest thus far in 2014, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. For comparison, 383 fires burned just 648 acres during the same time period last year.

And even more fires have burned hundreds additional acres in recent days. The blaze at Wharton  broke out over the weekend. It had burned 900-plus acres as of this morning and was about 80 percent contained at lunchtime today.

The windy conditions the state has seen this month "can really accelerate a fire," said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The amount of land burned is also high due to how firefighters have battled many of this year's blazes.

The fires have broken out in remote areas or places where it's difficult or unsafe to send personnel and equipment, said Stephen Maurer, the assistant state fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

So crews have been creating fire lines that eventually burn into the main blazes. The process deprives the main fire of fuel so it stops burning.

The goal is to "get rid of anything that can burn before the main fire gets there," Maurer said.

The method means more acres of the forest burn, but "we're not putting people at risk by putting them into areas where there are hazards," he said.

Some areas, like the Pinelands, are too remote to send adequate crews, water and equipment. In Cumberland County, crews have used fire lines to avoid sending firefighters into areas where dead pine trees stricken with damage from pine beetles were falling suddenly.

Some of this year's blazes have been massive, including a 1,500-acre fire at Wharton State Forest that affected air quality and carried smoke smells as far away as New York City.

On average, 1,500 wildfires occur in the state each year, burning a total of 7,000 acres.

Peak forest fire season in New Jersey typically runs from mid-April into early May. That's because the sun angle is high and vegetation hasn't yet grown in for the season.

The dry leaves and debris on the forest floor "can act like a tinder box" for fires, the DEP's Considine said.

And this April has been somewhat drier than usual: National Weather Service data show rainfall totals in the region for the month are more than an inch below normal.

Nearly all wildfires in New Jersey are set by people -- either by accident or intentionally -- with less than 1 percent caused by lightning. Fires can be set when a cigarette is carelessly discarded or campfires are left unattended, among other causes.

Authorities say a few recent Cumberland County forest fires are considered suspicious, but the causes of the blazes remain under investigation.


Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or ebabay@philly.com. Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

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