Dry winter leads to busy wildfire season in New Jersey

Officials enact burn restrictions, urge other precautions

By: - April 19, 2023 6:51 am

A wildfire dubbed the Jimmy’s Waterhole fire burned thousands of acres in Manchester and Lakehurst in Ocean County in early April 2023. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

Wildfires have torched nearly 8,000 forested acres in New Jersey already this year, a busy fire season that prompted state environmental officials Tuesday to implore the public to take precautions to avoid accidentally setting off further forest fires.

Their plea follows an especially active week — firefighters had to battle three major blazes that burned nearly 6,500 acres and required mass evacuations — and came the same day a wildfire broke out in Burlington County that by Tuesday night had spread to more than 250 acres.

“This is combat. This is frontlines. This is very much akin to a battle,” said Greg McLaughlin, administrator and chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

While New Jersey hasn’t experienced the catastrophic losses of more famously wildfire-ravaged states like California, McLaughlin said, “the potential here is real.”

So far this year, 517 wildfires have burned 7,608 acres in New Jersey, said John Cecil, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s assistant commissioner for state parks, forests, and historic sites. That’s up significantly from the same time last year, when 327 wildfires burned 471 acres, and 2021 when 373 wildfires spread over 508 acres, Cecil said.

Three major fires broke out in Ocean and Passaic counties last week alone:

  • The Jimmy’s Waterhole fire burned 3,859 acres in Manchester and Lakehurst and was fully contained by Thursday. About 170 homes were evacuated as a precaution, Cecil said.
  • The Log Swamp fire burned 1,607 acres in the Bass River State Forest, the Stafford Forge Wildlife Management Area, and the Warren Grove Bombing Range in Little Egg Harbor. It was contained by Sunday.
  • A fire on Kanouse Mountain in West Milford burned 972 acres before firefighters could contain it Saturday.

The cause of all three wildfires remains unknown, although people start 99% of wildfires, whether intentionally or not, McLaughlin said. The state fire service is working with local law enforcement to investigate and identify culprits, he added.

New Jersey’s negligible snowfall and infrequent rain this winter created dry conditions that will ensure the state’s forests remain at risk for fires until the summer’s humidity arrives and trees and other vegetation turn green, Cecil said. Without leaves for shade and any appreciable precipitation, the ground dries out faster and becomes more susceptible to flame, he added.

Invasive species also have contributed to a busy fire season, Cecil added. In West Milford, ash trees decimated by the emerald ash borer proved to be good kindling for the fire there, he said.

Climate change also has extended the fire season by about a month, with the weather warming earlier in the spring and summer temperatures lingering longer, he added. Fire season typically runs through mid-May in New Jersey, but dry conditions can drive it into June.

“This is essentially our Super Bowl. April is when we have the large fires throughout the state — and small fires in addition to that. A lot of these fires, you never even hear of them,” said Bill Love, the forest service’s assistant division fire warden. “We’re going to be at this unless it rains.”

The combined conditions, along with recent gusty winds, prompted the National Weather Service to declare a “red-flag warning” Wednesday morning in all 21 counties, meaning they’re at elevated risk of wildfires.

This is combat. This is frontlines. This is very much akin to a battle.

– Greg McLaughlin, New Jersey Forest Fire Service

The fire service deploys helicopters to scout for fires and dump water and keeps fire towers staffed throughout the season, McLaughlin said. Officials also have prohibited campfires in certain parts of the state.

With forests covering 40% of the state, fire safety is of statewide concern, Cecil and McLaughlin said.

They urged the public to be “mindful” of fire safety measures they can take to prevent forest fires, such as replacing wood mulch with stones, avoiding burning brush, disposing of fireplace ashes safely, cleaning leaves and pine needles out of gutters and away from fences, and clearing vegetation away from homes, especially in fire-prone areas like the Pinelands.

The public also should heed wildfire-related road closures and evacuation orders, they added.

“We want to encourage people to use those natural resources and appreciate them,” McLaughlin said. “But we also want to caution people to be careful and be smart, and to think about the environment around them.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.