As the California wildfires get under control, South Jersey is trying to prevent its own catastrophe.
The New Jersey pinelands are the largest tract of open space from Virginia to Massachusetts — making it one of the most fire prone areas in the country. Last year a wildfire wiped out thousands of acres, and one year later the forest and communities are still recovering.
Transcript of the radio report:
Just outside the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in South Jersey, pinelands researcher Walt Bien pauses at a three foot tall tree. It’s a pygmy pine — the bark is singed, dried up pine cones cling to the branches, and green tufts sprout from their base.
Bien: I marvel at the day after the forest fire it looked like a bomb hit this place it was completely black. And here we are just a little bit over a year, and look how green it looks. This luxurient growth and nature just doing what it’s done for, like i said, thousands of years.
As we walk through this dwarf forest — the largest pygmy pine forest in the world — off in the distance a bomb really does hit the place.
The national air guard pilots at Warren Grove are doing target practice — an exercise that sparked last year’s fire when a flare dropped outside a fire safety zone. The result — nearly 20,000 acres burned, four homes destroyed, thousands evacuated, and the garden state parkway shut down.
From a forest fire service helicopter the pinelands look like a never-ending carpet of astroturf. As we swing over the burned area, the blackened remains of pine trees look like stubble on a giant green face. Maris Gabliks, New Jersey’s fire warden, says this fire was a big one.
Gabliks: Every year we have in new jersey about 1600 wildfires. But they range in size from something that’s a quarter acre to several acres to several hundred acres. So for us to have one over 10, 15,000 acres, it’s probably about every 10 years.
Bien: The chapparal of california has the highest forest fire frequency in the united states. Most people don’t realize new jersey is second.
Walt Bien says that despite the military’s accidental fire last year, it has actually been an excellent fire manager. Periodically the National Air Guard conducts controlled burns to wipe out any twigs and dead leaves that can fuel a fire.
Bien: Globally it’s a very rare system. And it needs fire. And the prescribed burn program that’s being done at the warren grove gunnery range certainly mimicks natural fire cycles and regimes so it helps to maintain and perpetuate this habitat and forest type.
The pinelands are more than one million acres of protected forest — underneath them are 17 trillion gallons of clean water. There are a number of rare plants and animals that live in this habitat, like the small shrub broom crowberry and the pine barrens tree frog — and they have been preserved thanks to the military’s burning cycle. Bien, who is a professor at Drexel, is doing research on the military lands to guage how many years it takes to have the right conditions for the next forest fire. His data could help the forest fire service determine how often to conduct their own controlled burns to protect some of the surrounding communities.
Ed Richards is a management specialist for Barnegat township — he was a firefighter for years and has lived there all his life.
Richards: This is one of the houses that was damaged. They replaced it. You can see how close they are to the woods. When they built this place they just built it right up to the woods, and they don’t own the property behind it so they can’t do anything to it.
Richards is working with the Forest Fire Service and the Pinelands Commission on a new initiative to get land owners and homeowners involved in prevention. It isn’t always easy. When Richards was young, Barnegat’s population was about 2500. Now it’s 25,000. And he says many of the residents move to the area specifically to live in the woods. One of his primary concerns in Barnegat is a development with 1200 homes adjacent to several thousand acres of pine forest — which he has never seen burn.
Richards: Hasn’t burned since i’ve been alive no. We’ve had little fires in it, little sections, but never completely burnt. Really thick forest and prime for a problem.
There are efforts now to widen a road and thin out the trees to prevent a fire’s spread. David Kutner is the director of special projects for the Pinelands Commission, which manages the forest.
Kutner: That wildland urban interface creates problems. I think almiost everywhere in the country this issue arrises. I know out west it’s a big issue. Trying to explain to people that you have to manage these forests and it becomes a real point of contention. And that’s one of the issues we’re going to face. We have to explain to people that fire is vital to the viability of the pinelands and we have to figure out ways so the forest and residents can co-exist.
A first step, Kutner says, is simply tracking down who owns the land and getting them on board with prevention efforts. With the forests’ need for fire, it’s perhaps only a matter of which gets to the forest first — those prevention efforts, or a wildfire.