N.J. urges caution during spring wildfire season

     Flames from a massive wildfire that consumed hundreds of wooded acres in Beachwood and Berkeley in April 2014. (Image: Jessica Bonelli)

    Flames from a massive wildfire that consumed hundreds of wooded acres in Beachwood and Berkeley in April 2014. (Image: Jessica Bonelli)

    New Jersey officials are urging caution as spring wildfire season gets underway.

    The dry, warmer, and windy conditions typical during spring increase the risk for wildfire spread since most trees are without leaves, resulting in vegetation on the ground surface drying out quickly, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. 

    “The beginning of wildfire season can vary from year to year, depending on weather conditions,” said Forest Fire Service Chief Bill Edwards. “This year we are off to a somewhat earlier start because the winter became drier and warmer than normal as we progressed into late February. We cannot stress enough that a moment of carelessness can lead to wildfires that can place properties and lives at risk.”

    The entire state is currently under a moderate risk of wildfires. But they’re largely preventable, Edwards says. 

    99 percent of wildfires are caused by people, through accidents, carelessness, negligence and even arson, according to the Forest Fire Service. 

    The South Jersey Pinelands region is particularly vulnerable because of its predominant tree and shrub species. The region also dries out quickly after rainfall because of its porous and sandy soil.

    To reduce the risk, the Forest Fire Service conducts prescribed burning operations in woodlands and grasslands during the winter and early spring. Crews have burned more than 15,000 acres this season. 

    The burns reduce fire risks and keep forests healthy by burning away leaves, fallen branches and trees, and dense undergrowth at times when weather conditions are favorable.

    When wildfires spark, responders surround them with containment lines consisting of cleared breaks in the woods, existing roads, and topographical features, such as wetlands and rivers. They also light backfires ahead of the main fire to eliminate combustible fuels and stop the main fire’s forward progress.

    From there, crews monitor the fire in the containment area until it it burns itself out. 

    The state offers the following prevention tips:

    Use ashtrays in vehicles. Discarding cigarettes, matches and smoking materials on the ground is a violation of New Jersey law.
    Obtain required permits for campfires.
    Don’t leave fires unattended. Douse them completely.
    Keep matches and lighters away from children. Teach them about the dangers of fire.
    People living in forested or wooded areas should maintain a defensible buffer by clearing vegetation within at least 30 feet of any structures. Also, make sure fire trucks can access driveways.
    The Forest Fire Service strongly urges anyone who owns property in the Pinelands to maintain at least 100 feet of “defensible space” around structures, meaning these areas should be clear of vegetation that will burn easily as well as fallen leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches.
    Report suspicious vehicles and individuals to authorities.
    Be careful when using wood stoves and fireplaces, both of which can emit embers that can spark fires. Also, fully douse ashes with water before disposal.

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