This year’s unusually warm and dry weather has made the Pine Barrens especially vulnerable to fires, which has caused plenty of concern for fire warden Scott Knauer.
Knauer, who overseas an area that stretches from southern Ocean County to Burlington County, is one of 29 section fire wardens with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. The wardens are responsible for monitoring areas of about 100,000 acres. They are required to live in their areas and are on call 24 hours a day. If there’s a fire, it is the wardens who are responsible for making sure that there is sufficient manpower and equipment to put it out.
Knauer and the other wardens are also responsible for investigating the cause of fires in their sections and the training for local fire departments.
Knauer says his work keeps him plenty busy. This year, he has already had a shift that lasted 22 straight days.
“My girls play lacrosse,” Knauer said. “I haven’t made a single game this season. That’s because of work.”
His work and his home life have been intertwined for years. His daughters were born during a draught. Knauer says he was fighting a fire just two days upon returning to work after taking some time off to be with them.
“When it gets dry out you cannot drink alcohol, you can’t leave your area and you are only getting paid for seven or eight hours.”
Knauer says his job often doesn’t hold typical work hours.
“When it’s dry, you are married to your job.”
Knauer, who is not one to complain, said he loves his job because it enables him to help people and to work in the woods. The responsibility he has for public safety is huge and sometimes forces him to choose work over family. His family understands the demands of the job, which are considerable.
“My job is Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and I have to only go out occasionally at night,” Jim Busha, an assistant division fire warden based at Brendan Byrne State Forrest in Woodland said. Busha is Knauer’s supervisor. “A section fire warden’s job is 24/7 365 days a year.”
Last month, a fire scorched more than 1,300 acres of pine forest and brush in Tabernacle and Woodland Townships.
The question isn’t if the state will see another bad forest fire this year but when.
“We were looking at historic weather records that we have kept over the years and this fire season is comparable to 1930, 1963, 1977, 1986 and 1992,” Knauer said. “All those years that I mentioned we had devastating fires and some of those fires impacted the public greatly. All the holes in the Swiss cheese are lining up for this fire season to be the same way.”
A recent breezy day at Brendan Byrne State Forrest was delightful for visitors but potentially worrisome for the people tasked with combating forest fires because it meant that the 36,647 acres of Pine Barrens that had been soaked with a weekend rain would soon become dangerously dry.