News Department

NJDEP Forest Fire Service urges vigilance during peak wildfire season, highlights enhanced information resources

NEW JERSEY – As climate change leads to longer wildfire seasons, the NJDEP Forest Fire Service is providing more tools and resources than ever before to help the public understand and mitigate wildfire risk and have access to timely safety information on ongoing wildfires.

Peak wildfire season typically runs from mid-March through mid-May.

During a virtual media briefing Tuesday, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Forest Fire Service highlighted various communications platforms and tools designed to keep the public informed about wildfires, including reminders about common-sense prevention tips, real-time social media announcements about developing and ongoing fires, and online risk assessment data.

“Residents and visitors to New Jersey should not become complacent of wildfire risk just because the state received substantial rainfall in March and early April,” said Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette. “In a changing climate, we are increasingly seeing dry conditions between heavy rainfalls, in what we have come to know as ‘flash droughts.’ Despite the recent rain, wildfire risk remains heightened at this time of year, and public awareness of how to stay safe is paramount.”

Enhanced Information Tools

Information about wildfire risks and mitigation is especially critical for people who live within or adjacent to forested areas, also known as the wildland-urban interface. Information tools the Forest Fire Service has introduced in response to the growing dangers include:

  • The NJ Fire Danger Dashboard, found on the Forest Fire Service website, is updated frequently with a fire danger rating by county, displays a color-coded index of different fire danger ratings and provides a snapshot view of risk by county. The dashboard also displays any current campfire restrictions that may be implemented depending on fire weather conditions such as high winds or prolonged dry periods.
  • The New Jersey Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (NJWRAP) compiles data and resources to assist residents, community leaders and fire professionals in taking actions to mitigate the threat of wildfire risk around their property and in their community. Data and preparedness resources presented in the portal were developed by the nation’s wildfire experts, with Forest Fire Service personnel providing practical and local information.

Time-Sensitive Wildfire Information

In addition to these risk assessment information tools, the Forest Fire Service is committed to issuing timely social media updates to inform the public and media about developing and ongoing wildfires classified as major or as complex incidents.

Major wildfires are defined as at least 100 acres in size. Fires smaller than 100 acres that result in road closures, threaten structures, or otherwise impact developed properties are known as complex incidents.

In the event of either a major wildfire or a complex smaller fire, real-time updates will be posted on the Forest Fire Service’s Facebook and X accounts. Posts will provide essential information including the wildfire’s size, containment status, road closures, evacuations and types of resources responding to the fire. Posts will also include the approximate time of the next expected update.

Climate Change and Increasing Wildfire Risks

Spring is typically peak wildfire season in New Jersey. At this time of year, trees and underbrush are still leafing out, relative humidity is generally low and windy days are common. The combination of these factors means forested lands dry out quickly. Additionally, porous sandy soils in the vast Pinelands region of southern New Jersey do not retain moisture for long, exacerbating drying and making it possible for a fire to spark only hours after rainfall.

Climate change is making wildfire seasons longer. According to Climate Central, a research nonprofit, nationwide analysis of weather conditions during the past 50 years found that the annual number of fire weather days has risen by 10 days in northern New Jersey and four days in southern New Jersey. This data mirrors the DEP’s own 2020 Scientific Report on Climate Change which states, “wildfire seasons could be lengthened, and the frequency of large fires increased due to the hot, dry periods that will result from increased temperatures.”

Murphy Administration Responds

In 2023, New Jersey had its most active fire year in more than a decade with 1,193 wildfires burning 18,043 acres statewide. Fourteen of these fires were considered major wildfires, burning more than 100 acres each. The most significant of these fires were the Jimmy’s Waterhole Wildfire on April 11 in Ocean County, which burned 3,449 acres and required evacuation from 170 structures, and the Kanouse Wildfire on April 12 in Passaic County, which burned 972 acres, closed State Route 23 and threatened 10 structures.

The Murphy Administration responded to the busy fire year by supporting the Forest Fire Service with a $3 million budget boost in FY23 to enhance protection of lives and property through investments in new equipment and staff. The investment helped upgrade the Forest Fire Service’s fleet of equipment, expanded the Forest Fire Service’s contracted air support during peak spring fire season and helped fund full-time employees that will fill critical vacancies.

“Through the hard work and dedication of the Forest Fire Service staff, firefighters and support staff alike, thankfully no homes or structures were lost in any of the 14 major wildfires New Jersey experienced in 2023,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “Thanks to investments by the Murphy Administration last July, the Forest Fire Service is now better equipped to ensure the protection of life, property and natural resources throughout the Garden State.”

Fire Towers and Prescribed Burns

Keeping an eye on New Jersey’s forested lands, the Forest Fire Service maintains a network of 21 fire towers across the state which are staffed any time forests are dry enough to burn. Fire Observers, trained in taking weather readings and reading smoke and fire behavior, scan the horizon from the towers looking for smoke, triangulate and pinpoint the location of the smoke with other nearby towers, and dispatch resources to investigate the cause. Fire towers frequently dispatch resources to the source of smoke several minutes before the first 9-1-1 call from a passerby is placed.

“Fire observers are critical to the Forest Fire Service’s mission of early detection and rapid response to wildfires,” said Bill Donnelly, State Forest Firewarden and Chief of the Forest Fire Service. “New Jersey has some of the most volatile forest fuels in the country. Having eyes in the sky with the ability to dispatch resources at the first sign of smoke, as well as relaying to ground crews what the wind speed, wind direction and other weather conditions are doing, is immensely important.”

To further reduce the threat of wildfire, the Forest Fire Service uses prescribed burns to reduce fallen debris and understory that can fuel wildfires. Prescribed fire also improves habitat for plants and animals, reduces the presence of damaging insects and ticks, and recycles nutrients into the soil.

So far this year, the Forest Fires Service has treated 14,402 acres of forest and grasslands with prescribed fire. As another component of its suite of enhanced public information tools, the Forest Fire Service maintains a Prescribed Fire Notifications Dashboard to keep the public informed on where and when these burns are taking place.

Wildfire Safety Tips

Prevention remains the most important part of the equation. Most wildfires can be avoided by adhering to these commonsense safety tips:

  • Don’t discard cigarettes, matches or smoking materials on the ground.
  • Don’t leave fires unattended. Douse them completely, until cold to the touch.
  • Keep matches and lighters away from children. Teach youth about fire safety. Children can learn about wildfire safety with Smokey Bear’s new mobile game “Smokey’s Scouts.”
  • Protect your home and other structures from wildfire by creating defensible space. Visit njwildfire.org for more information.
  • Ensure fire trucks 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.
  • Contact your nearest Forest Fire Service office about how to obtain a Campfire Permit.

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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