NEW JERSEY – With New Jersey facing increasing wildfire risks due to climate change, Commissioner of Environmental Protection Shawn M. LaTourette Thursday announced that the Murphy Administration is providing an additional $3 million to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service budget to enhance protection of lives and property through investments in new equipment and staff.
The investment was announced as part of a ceremony at Coyle Field Forest Fire Service air attack base in Burlington County, during which the DEP’s Forest Fire Service also presented awards to individuals and agencies that have assisted during New Jersey’s most active wildfire season in more than a decade.
The funding announcement and awards presentation coincided with Climate Week, which runs from Sept. 17 through 24. Climate Week provides the public with an opportunity to learn about climate change and actions that can be taken to become more resilient and mitigate its impacts.
“The need to further strengthen our Forest Fire Service cannot be understated during Climate Week as the impacts of climate change increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires right here at home,” LaTourette said. “In addition to protecting lives and property, our Forest Fire Service assists with natural disasters, maintains hundreds of miles of roads, works alongside multiple cooperators to develop and implement strategic plans that reduce the risk of future wildfires, and lends their talents to other states when wildfires strike.”
The $3 million investment will help upgrade the Forest Fire Service’s aging fleet of equipment. All fire engines used by the Forest Fire Service are constructed and modified in-house at the service’s Research and Development facility, resulting in significant cost savings. These specially designed engines are equipped to access difficult-to-reach areas of New Jersey’s forests while keeping firefighters safe during a growing wildfire. Additional funds will also be made available to expand the Forest Fire Service’s contracted air support during peak spring fire season and to help fund full-time employees that will fill critical vacancies.
Extended Fire Seasons
“This year we saw the challenges the Forest Fire Service can face with a prolonged wildfire season and multiple significant wildfires burning simultaneously in the Pinelands and elsewhere throughout the state,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “It is imperative that we provide our brave wildland firefighters the best resources possible to do their jobs safely while they protect lives and property.”
Fire seasons across the country have increased in length, including in the Garden State. Wildfire season in New Jersey has historically been from mid-March through mid-May but has increased noticeably in length during the past decade, with major wildfires occurring in February and extending into summer. In New Jersey, 99 percent of wildfires are caused by people, through accidents, carelessness and arson. The remainder are caused by lightning strikes.
Major wildfires continued to flare through this summer, with the most recent being the Dragway Wildfire in late August that burned 1,778 acres, and the Airpark Wildfire that burned more than 800 acres during Labor Day weekend. Both fires were in the wildfire-prone Pinelands region.
A new nationwide analysis of weather conditions during the past 50 years by the nonprofit Climate Central found that the annual number of days with a high risk of wildfire has increased by 10 days in northern New Jersey and four days in southern New Jersey. The 2020 New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change notes that wildfire seasons are expected to lengthen, and the frequency of large fires will increase due to hot, dry periods that will result from increasing temperatures.
To date in 2023, the Forest Fire Service has responded to 1,034 wildfires which have burned 17,979 acres in New Jersey. Fourteen of these fires were considered to be major wildfires burning in excess of 100 acres, making 2023 the busiest fire season in more than a decade.
The most significant of these fires include the Jimmy’s Waterhole Wildfire in Manchester and Lakehurst in Ocean County, which burned 3,450 acres and caused the evacuation of 170 homes; the Kanouse Wildfire in West Milford, Passaic County, which burned 972 acres and caused the evacuation of five homes; the Allen Road Wildfire in Bass River Township, Burlington County, which burned 5,474 acres, forced the evacuation of a campground and the closure of a portion of the Garden State Parkway; and the Flat Iron Wildfire in Medford, Burlington County, which burned 212 acres and threatened 40 homes.
The 14 major wildfires that have occurred this year are:
- March 7: Governors Branch Wildfire (418 acres), Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County
- April 11: Jimmy’s Waterhole Wildfire (3,450 acres), Manchester Township and Lakehurst Borough, Ocean County
- April 12: Kanouse Wildfire (972 acres), West Milford Township, Passaic County
- April 14: Log Swamp Wildfire (1,607 acres), Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County
- April 18: River Road Wildfire (241 acres), Washington Township, Burlington County
- May 13: Cannonball Wildfire (102 acres), Pompton Lakes Borough, Passaic County
- May 29: Box Turtle Wildfire (158 acres), Monroe Township, Gloucester County
- May 31: Allen Road Wildfire (5,474 acres), Bass River Township, Burlington County
- June 2: Flatiron Wildfire (212 acres), Medford Township, Burlington County
- June 9: City Line Wildfire (711 acres), Manchester Township, Ocean County, and Pemberton and Woodland Townships, Burlington County
- June 9: Buzby Boggs Wildfire (703 acres), Evesham Township, Burlington County
- June 19: Acorn Hill Wildfire (246 acres), Woodland Township, Burlington County
- 20: Dragway Wildfire (1,778 acres), Waterford Township, Camden County, and Shamong and Medford, Burlington County
- 2: Airpark Wildfire (810 acres), Lacey Township, Ocean County
To mark the historic fire season, the Forest Fire Service presented the Interagency Cooperators Award to six interagency partners “for distinguished service during the extraordinary event of wildfires in New Jersey, Spring 2023.”
“Without the cooperation of our interagency partners the Forest Fire Service’s job would be immensely more difficult,” said Greg McLaughlin, Administrator and Chief of the Forest Fire Service. “Celebrating these interagency partners is a reminder that preventing wildfires and keeping the public safe requires the support and commitment of many people and departments.”
Awards were presented to:
- Christopher Warwick, Trooper II, New Jersey State Police Office of Emergency Management
- Michael Mastronardy, Sheriff, Ocean County Sheriff’s Department
- Kristen Carr, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, Burlington County Office of Emergency Management
- Stephen J. Letts, Captain, Fire Investigations K9 Unit, New Jersey State Fire Marshal’s Office
- Whiting Volunteer Fire Company No. 1
- West Milford Fire Companies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6
In addition, DEP Senior Press Officer Caryn Shinske was given the Smokey Bear Award for Journalism in the Service of Wildfire Prevention in recognition of her work coordinating and facilitating media requests involving the Forest Fire Service.
Partnerships are critical to the mission of the Forest Fire Service, which also administers the Volunteer Fire Capacity Program to help organize, train and equip local fire departments to assist the Forest Fire Service in fighting wildfires in small, rural communities with populations of 10,000 or less.
This year, the DEP through the Forest Fire Service is making $200,000 available in grants to help prepare local departments to assist in fighting wildland fires. Eligible departments must match their grant amount, use funding for equipment and training, and agree to assist the Forest Fire Service with emergency operations when asked.
Created through legislation on July 4, 1906, the DEP’s Forest Fire Service is tasked with protecting life, property and natural resources from wildfire in the Garden State. The Forest Fire Service’s primary response area is 3.72 million acres, comprising 77% of the state’s land area.
Throughout this very busy wildfire season, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, as operational needs allow, has supported efforts in other parts of the country to fight wildfires and continued to support emergency response efforts in New Jersey, including the recent impacts from torrential rain that caused mudslides and other damage in July.