Illegal campfire sparked NJ’s largest wildfire in 15 years, fire official says

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A wildfire in the Wharton State Forest – the largest to hit New Jersey in 15 years – is burning in an area that state environment officials have warned is the most at risk. risk of wildfires throughout the state.

An illicit campfire ignited the blaze on Sunday morning that has since spread to about 13,500 acres in Atlantic and Burlington counties in the Pinelands, the New Brunswick Forest Fire Department chief said Tuesday. Jersey, Greg McLaughlin. The blaze is about 85% contained, with firefighters aiming to limit its spread to 15,175 acres, McLaughlin added.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in a 2019 report, identified the wildfire risk in this area as “extreme” due to its overgrowth of grasses, shrubs, trees and other “wildfire fuel hazards”.

(Courtesy of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection)

The blaze is an urgent reminder to state environmental officials of the need for good forest management, including removing invasive species and thinning trees to reduce vegetation that can fuel the fires. , said an environmentalist.

“It was only a matter of time before we had this kind of fire,” said Jeff Tittel, a longtime Hunterdon County environmental activist. “They’re just lucky it’s in the middle of Wharton State Forest and not Manchester in Ocean County where there are thousands of people.”

Investigators early suspected that a lightning strike over the stormy holiday weekend had ignited the blaze, but soon discovered the remains of a campfire someone had started illegally in an unsanctioned area for fires, McLaughlin said.

Investigators from the New Jersey State Police, Office of Emergency Management, New Jersey State Park Police and county prosecutors’ offices are now trying to identify the culprit, who may be ordered to pay compensation if found guilty, McLaughlin said.

Officials have not yet determined how much it cost state and local municipalities to fight the fire.

There is currently legislation pending that would address some of these issues.

A bill would require the Department of Environmental Protection to reimburse local municipalities for costs incurred in responding to emergencies in state parks and forests. Another would give local governments state grants of up to $1,500 to implement a forest stewardship plan.

New Jersey has nearly 2 million acres of forest, representing 40% of the state’s total area, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Wharton State Forest is the largest, spanning over 110,000 acres.

The State Route 206 command post near Wharton State Forest Shamong on June 20, 2022. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Longer wildfire season

The wildfire is the state’s largest since 2007, when a flare deployed during a military exercise at the Air National Guard’s Warren Grove bombing range sparked a blaze that scorched 17,000 acres , prompted thousands to evacuate and damaged or destroyed more than 50 homes.

The ongoing Wharton wildfire comes at a time when climate change has slowly extended New Jersey’s fire season, which once stretched from mid-March to late May, McLaughlin said.

“We’re starting to see our fire seasons change and become less seasonal, and maybe more year-round or longer,” he said.

A longer fire season hasn’t resulted in more fires, however. About 1,000 wildfires occur on average each year, compared to about 1,500 per year 20 years ago, McLaughlin said.

Most stay small, burning less than five acres, he said. “Major” wildfires — those larger than 100 acres — usually only happen two or three times a year, he added.

And most are triggered by humans, either accidentally or intentionally, McLaughlin said.

Tittel called on policymakers to restrict development in or near forests, saying over-pumping of the aquifer that provides water to homes and businesses dries out the ground and increases the risk of wildfires.

“We should also limit public access to these high risk areas, otherwise we are going to end up having more and more fires – and they are going to get worse as the planet and our climate warms up and our ground becomes drier. “, said Titel.

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