NEW JERSEY – The New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s annual prescribed burning program to reduce wildfire risk and manage natural resources by burning the buildup of potential fuels such as undergrowth, leaves, branches and pine needles on forest floors is underway, according to Department of Environmental Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette.
“The importance of prescribed burning in New Jersey’s forests cannot be overstated,” LaTourette said. “Prescribed burning is a safe activity that is planned with strategic input from multiple DEP programs to reduce and eliminate the materials that fuel wildfires while protecting public safety. Prescribed burning also helps minimize the adverse impacts of climate change by limiting significant and harmful releases of carbon during wildfires.”
This year, the Forest Fire Service intends to treat 25,000 acres of forests, grasslands and marsh with prescribed fire. Meeting the targeted acreage will depend on favorable weather conditions from February through April, when most prescribed burning takes place in New Jersey.
Role Of Prescribed Burning
In addition to reducing forest floor fuels, prescribed burning improves habitat for plants and animals, reduces the presence of damaging insects and ticks, and recycles nutrients into the soil.
“Prescribed burning is a crucial tool in our efforts to maintain the ecological health and fire resiliency of New Jersey’s landscapes,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “By carefully managing fire in a controlled manner, we can reduce the risk of devastating wildfires and conserve the state’s rich natural heritage for future generations.”
Prescribed burning is a critical part of the state’s carbon defense strategy because it allows experts to direct the intensity, timing and interval of fire across the landscape. Prescribed burning reduces the fuel available to support large, high-intensity wildfires that can cause significant carbon losses. It also improves soil health by promoting nutrient cycling and reducing soil compaction, leading to increased plant growth and carbon sequestration.
Most of the Forest Fire Service’s burns will occur on state-owned property such as forests, parks and Wildlife Management Areas, but the Forest Fire Service also assists private landowners, nonprofit organizations, and county and municipal governments to meet their management objectives through prescribed burning. Landowners interested in the Forest Fire Service’s assistance in conducting a prescribed burn on their property should contact their regional Forest Fire Service office.
Factors That Impact Prescribed Burning
Several climatological and environmental conditions, all of which influence a burn’s intensity and severity, are considered when conducting prescribed burns to accomplish various resource and ecological objectives, such as reducing hazard fuels and managing habitats. The Forest Fire Service and Division of Air Quality work together to assess wind speed, humidity and temperature and to determine the best days to conduct prescribed burning. Other factors considered include the density and arrangement of the vegetation being burned.
While most prescribed burns take place in the spring, a prescribed burn may be implemented in the summer or fall depending on the management objective for a particular area. The Prescribed Burn Act, which Governor Phil Murphy signed into law in August 2018, authorized the Forest Fire Service to use prescribed burning as a tool to meet a wider range of management objectives designed to improve forest health and conditions for plants and animals. For example, prescribed burning can be an effective tool in managing the spread of nonnative invasive species or to manage grasslands for threatened or endangered bird species.
Most burning takes place throughout the New Jersey Pinelands, a fire-adapted ecosystem which needs fire to thrive. Pitch pine, the dominant species of pine in New Jersey, have serotinous cones, which means they remain closed until exposed to high heat from fire, at which point they release their seeds. Additionally, pitch pine trees are able to sprout new growth from their roots or stump, allowing them to quickly recover and colonize a burned area.
Motorists are reminded to use caution when approaching areas where prescribed burns are taking place, pay attention to reduced speed limits and be alert to the presence of Forest Fire Service trucks and personnel that may be working alongside roadways.
In 2022, the Forest Fire Service completed prescribed burns on 11,925 acres of state-owned lands, 3,363 acres of other government-owned land and 1,694 acres of privately owned property, for a total of 16,982 acres.
New Jerseyans are reminded that peak wildfire season often directly follows prescribed burn season. When in doubt about the source of smoke or whether a fire is part of a prescribed burning operation, call 1-877-WARN-DEP (1-877-927-6337) or 911.
Additional Wildfire Fuel Mitigation Strategies
The Forest Fire Service works alongside the New Jersey Forest Service to develop forest management plans which protect lives, property and natural resources from wildfire.
The Forest Fire Service has launched the Allen and Oswego Road Fire Mitigation and Habitat Restoration Project in Bass River State Forest because an extreme density of trees combined with other forest fuels make the area too dangerous to treat with prescribed fire alone. The project, which gained New Jersey Pinelands Commission approval in October 2022, is set to mimic the effects of wildfire through the use of mechanized equipment. Once complete, a 25-foot firebreak will exist on either side of Allen and Oswego roads, 1,305 acres of thinning will remove highly flammable materials known as ladder fuels throughout the area and 13 miles of roadway will be improved, allowing safe and efficient access for emergency vehicles.
More information about the project can be found here.
A similar project along Washington Turnpike in Wharton State Forest helped limit the spread of the Mullica River Wildfire last year, New Jersey’s largest wildfire in 15 years.
“The Mullica River Wildfire which burned 11,129.5 acres in the Wharton State Forest in June of 2022 was a reminder to New Jerseyans that the potential for large-scale wildfires exists in the Garden State,” said Greg McLaughlin, Administrator and Chief of the Forest Fire Service. “Through prescribed burning and developing forest management plans strategically in key areas of forest, we can help limit the spread of a major wildfire across the landscape, saving lives and property and aiding in protecting firefighters.”
Additional forest management projects aimed to limit the spread of wildfires are ongoing at other state-owned property including Double Trouble State Park.
Residents can view where upcoming prescribed burns will be taking place in their communities over a five-day period on a Prescribed Fire Notifications map at njwildfire.org. Additionally, daily notifications are posted on the Forest Fire Service’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Residents can also sign up for text or email notifications of prescribed burns by following this link.