Lawmakers hear predictions of deadly fire disaster in South Jersey
The Pinelands region in South Jersey is facing a deadly wildfire threat that could cause as much, if not more, destruction as the blaze that obliterated the town of Paradise, California, last year.
That was the message delivered to New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday during a special hearing in Trenton.
Members of the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Environment and Solid Waste committees heard hours of testimony from forestry experts about fire danger in the Pinelands, and how to minimize and prevent it.
The Pinelands is a National Reserve that encompasses more than a million acres of forest, wetlands and farms. It is home to more than 700,000 residents in 56 communities and seven counties.
“There is a real potential for catastrophic wildfire in the New Jersey Pinelands,” said Greg McLaughlin, the chief of the NJ Forest Fire Service.
He said a variety of plants and vegetation in the Pinelands will quickly create a very dangerous situation if a fire breaks out.
“They grow densely. There’s connectivity between the shrub layer and the canopy, the tree tops, which allows fire to spread quickly. It allows for explosive fire growth," he said. “This fuel model, as I called it, is very similar to the fuel model and the fuel structure in California.”
The fast-moving California fire, sparked by howling winds, killed 86 people and incinerated hundreds of homes and structures in November.
Bob Williams, a forest expert and owner of Pine Creek Forestry Management Company, agrees with the threat assessment.
He told members of both Assembly panels that the Pinelands is a ticking time bomb.
“We are going to have fires. It will be comparable to what destroyed Paradise, California. That’s going to happen," he testified.
He said the only way to protect the Pinelands is to increase the amount of prescribed burns.
“Fire is not our enemy. Fire is the life-blood of this forest ecosystem. We need to ramp this up in a significant way.”
He stressed what happened in California will definitely take place in New Jersey unless things change.
John Sacco, an assistant director of the state Division of Parks and Forestry, said conservation efforts in Jersey have long focused on protecting forests from development, “but have ignored the harm caused by the lack of stewardship.”
“The Pinelands are a fire-prone, disturbance dependent eco-system. A history of fire suppression and lack of active forest management have caused excessive forest density that is unnatural and is the root cause of man of the problems facing our forests today.”
Sacco told the panel that “excessive forest density, particularly in the Pinelands, is making damaging wildfires and insect outbreaks more likely. This places human lives, developments and watersheds at risk.”
McLaughlin said that when a wildfire breaks out, there can be “absolute chaos” because residents don’t know how to escape, where to go, what to do, and some individuals with special needs are simply not able to leave their homes.
He told lawmakers we know we can’t control the weather or the topography but “we can manipulate and modify the fuels. The fuels I’m referring to is the vegetation that exists now. It’s something that would burn and fuel a fire.”
He explained what we do with prescribed burning is “using it as a tool in a safe manner.”
A new law last year will allow the Forest Fire Service to expand prescribed burning from 20,000 to 40,000 acres a year but experts believe even more prescribed burning must be done to control the fire risk in the Pinelands.
Sacco noted besides prescribed burning, forestry density management, especially tree and vegetation “thinning,” is very difficult because it’s expensive and “a lack of an appreciable wood products industry in New Jersey inhibits timber-harvesting.”
At the same time, the public has a negative view of tree-cutting in general.
The Division is developing a wildfire risk reduction component of the 2020 Statewide Forest Action Plan.
Williams said the DEP knows how to lessen the risk of a catastrophic fire in the Pinelands but “we have a political social problem: the inability of people to come together and start agreeing on things and working together.”
He added: “We’re blowing it, you know what’s going to happen if this fire happens, the Legislature will cut every tree from Camden to Barnegat.”