Above-average rain is keeping New Jersey’s wildfire season calm, but don’t get complacent, officials say

Officials warn that a changing climate can spark a wildfire despite a wet couple of months.

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a 2022 wildfire in Wharton State Forest

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service attempts to contain a wildfire in the Wharton State Forest in Burlington County in 2022. (6abc)

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New Jersey is faring better this fire season when compared to last year, thanks to above-average rainfall.

“We’ve had substantial rain [in] March. And now here we are starting off in April, and it’s been pretty wet,” said William Donnelly, state forest fire warden and Forest Fire Service Chief during a media update about the Garden State’s peak wildfire season.

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However, Donnelly and other Department of Environmental Protection officials are urging residents to not become complacent.

“It only takes a day or two with the wind blowing and warmer temperatures,” Donnelly adds. “No matter how wet it was yesterday, by today, we could be having fires.”

Experts have said that climate change has extended New Jersey’s wildfire season, starting as early as mid-February and ending as late as early July. A report released by Climate Central last year found that the number of fire weather days has increased; ten days in North Jersey and four days in South Jersey. The state’s wildfire season used to span from mid-March to mid-May.

Charred and smoking trees are visible.
A wildfire left trees in the National Pine Barrens charred and smoking in Manchester Township, N.J., on April 12, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

So far in 2024, 218 wildfires have ravaged 171 acres across the state. For the same time period last year, 358 wildfires consumed 970 acres. Last year was the most active fire season in more than a decade, with 1,193 wildfires burning 18,043 acres.

Donnelly said this year’s season is starting slightly slower, but “that’s all subject to change.”

“Recognizing the changing climate, we increasingly see dry conditions between heavy rainfalls and what we have come to know as flash droughts,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites.

Officials are asking residents to be proactive in preventing wildfires by not leaving campfires unattended and being careful while discarding cigarettes or flammable materials. The department is also promoting an app for kids to learn about wildfire safety called Smokey’s Scouts.

“Consider that 99% of all wildfires are started by people, whether accidentally or intentionally,” said Greg McLaughlin, administrator for forests and natural lands, adding unlike other natural disasters – like hurricanes, tornadoes and storms — wildfires are unpredictable.

Trees charred by fire are visible.
A wildfire left trees in the National Pine Barrens charred in Manchester Township, N.J., on April 12, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s not necessarily a matter of if it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of when it’s going to happen,” he said.

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In addition to its fire danger dashboard, officials launched a wildfire assessment portal this year to help residents and municipal governments determine their wildfire risk.

“And there’s numerous tools built within that talks about what can be done to improve and mitigate some of that risk that they may find,” McLaughlin said.

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