Air Tanker Returns to Ocean County Airpark to Help Fight Forest Fires; County Assists with Prescribed Burn Program

The Ocean County Airport will again serve as the temporary home to a single engine air tanker capable of delivering up to 800 gallons of water to precision targets during forest fires.

“The New Jersey State Forest Fire Service resumed operations at the Ocean County Airport following the construction of the Crosswind Runway in 2014,” said Ocean County Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, who serves as liaison to the airport. “I am pleased we can offer them a state of the art location to base this plane during forest fire season.

“The Crosswind Runway provides an extra measure of safety for pilots which allows us to have this plane in our backyard,” Vicari said. “With this location, the State Forest Fire Service can quickly respond to forest fires in the central area of the state.”

The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders will approve a resolution authorizing use of the airport. The state Forest Fire Service is scheduled to base the plane at the airport from mid-April to mid-May. The plane is scheduled to leave Ocean County around May 10.

“Many of the County’s inland communities are threatened by the hazard of forest fires,” Vicari said. “Especially during high winds and dry periods, it is critical to control and extinguish developing fires as soon as possible. Having the NJFFS stationed at the Ocean County Airport each year is invaluable to the safety of countless Ocean County homes and businesses.”

Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines said the County works in concert with New Jersey State Forest Fire Service in preparing for forest fire season, which usually starts in late March.

“State Forest Fire along with local volunteer fire companies recently battled a blaze that was at the border of Burlington and Ocean counties,” said Haines. “With more than 11,000 acres burned it’s imperative we all work together to not only contain the fire but prevent such fires.”

Haines, who serves as liaison of the Ocean County Department of Parks and Recreation, noted the Department completed prescribed burns at many of Ocean County’s parks and natural land sites.

“Since March Ocean County Parks staff has worked with state Forest Fire Service in prescribed burning almost 1,200 acres,” Haines said.

These prescribed burns help to manage fuel reduction including vegetation, leaves needles, downed trees, branches and other growth resulting in reducing the risk of wildfires and the fuel load so when a wildfire does occur it either slows it down or stops its movement until it can be contained.

Prescribed burns, which are performed under only exacting conditions, also can help restore nutrients and improve forest health and habitat for wildlife and endangered plant species.

Haines noted that Ocean County Parks worked with state Forest Fire to construct the Pancoast Road fuel break with forest thinning on the south side of Wells Mills County Park to protect housing communities on West Bay Ave in Barnegat Township.

“We are also in the planning stages of a similar fuel break on the Structural Management Natural Lands properties to help in protecting residential communities in the Route 539 area of Manchester Township,” she said. “With more than 30,000 acres of open space preserved by the County, and all the additional open space we have here, it’s imperative we take a pro-active approach to reducing the natural fuels that could result in quickly spreading forest fires.

“Our parks department staff has the expertise and has created the important partnerships needed to keep the public safe during forest fire season,” she said.

Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Kelly said it is important for residents and visitors to be particularly vigilant when driving or out in the woods to properly discard any smoking materials or not engage in this kind of activity.

“So many forest and brush fires are caused by human error or carelessness,” he said. “With some care and caution, they can easily be prevented.”

During the 2018 forest fire season, the Air Tractor 802F “Fire Boss” tanker plane, responded to 10 fires and made 38 drops delivering 12,800 gallons of water.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the peak wildfire season in New Jersey typically begins in middle to late March and runs through late spring, when the weather tends to be dry, windy and warmer. This also is the time of year when forest canopies and undergrowth have yet to leaf out, making forest debris more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sunshine.

Vicari said anyone convicted of purposely starting a forest or brush fire faces serious criminal penalties.

The Ocean County Airport is located on 420 acres in Berkeley Township about five miles west of Toms River. A precision approach facility, it features a 6,000-foot runway in addition to the Crosswind Runway. It accommodates various aircraft, including private airplanes, small corporate jets, the state Forest Fire Service planes, the Civil Air Patrol and Emergency Services aircraft.

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