With peak wildfire season under way, DEP promotes fire safety

pTRENTON, NJ — Now that peak wildfire season is under way in New Jersey, the State Forest Fire Service is reminding residents how they can help to avoid forest fires, which are almost always caused by people, according to an April 16 press release. The Forest Fire Service also announced the outcome of its investigation into the cause of the 2019 Spring Hill wildfire that burned for a month, devastating thousands of acres in the New Jersey Pinelands, announced Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe.

The filing of civil charges comes one year after the fire burned 11,638 acres of land in Bass River and Penn State forests. A complaint signed March 20 charges five individuals with setting a fire without written permission, and failure to extinguish the fire and notify authorities. The court filing seeks approximately $50,000 in restitution.

“The Forest Fire Service’s pursuit of those responsible for this devastating wildfire was necessary because they recklessly put lives and property at risk,” McCabe said. “The Spring Hill fire burned for a month, closed roads and required extensive resources to keep the public safe. Thankfully, there were no injuries or personal property damage during the fire, but thousands of acres of the public’s natural resources were needlessly destroyed. We thank all our partners who helped with fire suppression and the investigation that followed. Everyone can help prevent wildfires by following commonsense guidelines, but those who recklessly endanger themselves, others and our environment should beware that they will be held responsible.”

The Spring Hill fire started on a day when weather conditions were conducive to wildfire risk and spread. Peak wildfire season in New Jersey typically is from late March through early May. During that time, fallen leaves, branches and twigs are abundant, daylength increases, humidity can be low, and it is often warm and windy. Those weather conditions combined with lack of new leaf growth makes forest debris more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sun, particularly in the Pinelands region of the state. The dry underbrush acts as kindling for wildfire growth.

While most wildfires are caused by people, other factors can also increase wildfire risk. A lightning strike was determined to have caused the Split Ditch wildfire at the Millville Wildlife Management Area on April 9. The Forest Fire Service deemed the 1,518-acre fire under control on April 11.

The Spring Hill fire was caused by embers from a bonfire.

“Nearly all wildfires are caused by people, through accidents, carelessness, negligence and even arson,” state firewarden and Forest Fire Service Chief Gregory McLaughlin said. “Reducing those risks is especially critical at this time of year, when weather conditions and other factors can increase wildfire risk. The painstaking investigation of the Spring Hill wildfire over the past year highlights why human behavior is a critical factor in preventing wildfires.”

Most wildfires are preventable, and the public should follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t discard cigarettes, matches and smoking materials on the ground.
  • Obtain required permits for campfires from your nearest Forest Fire Service office. Don’t leave fires unattended and be sure to douse them completely, until cold to the touch.
  • Keep matches and lighters away from children. Teach youth about fire safety.
  • Protect structures from wildfire damage by creating space of at least 30 feet between homes and flammable vegetation in forested or wooded areas, and 100 feet from homes in the Pinelands region. These buffers should be free from vegetation that will burn easily, such as fallen leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. Make sure firetrucks can access driveways.
  • Report suspicious vehicles and individuals to authorities.
  • Use wood stoves and fireplaces carefully, since both can emit embers that spark fires. Fully douse ashes with water before disposal.

Another key component of wildfire control and ensuring ecosystem health is prescribed burning. This past winter and early spring, the Forest Fire Service completed a successful prescribed burning program that will help in managing risk this forest fire season. Using fire as a tool in a thoughtfully planned and controlled manner reduces risk and removes fuels that could contribute to wildfire start and spread. It also keeps forests healthy and provides strategic areas for firefighters to manage wildfires during an incident.