Dry Summer Keeping New Jersey Forest Fire Service busy

forest fire service vermont brush fire lkwd[TLS file photo of the FFS at the Vermont Brush Fire] Every morning, Bob Morse drives to a lonely tower deep in the Pine Barrens, climbs 137 steps to his 6-foot-square office, and waits for a fire. “You’re either bored out of your mind,” he said, clutching binoculars, “or it’s chaos.” Morse, 63, has for nine years been a fire spotter for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. This year there’s been more chaos than usual. More than 6,000 acres of forest have burned statewide this year, including the 677 acres that burned in Bass River State Park last week in Ocean and Burlington counties.

This time last year, it was about 1,000.

Morse will often spend all day peering out the windows in all directions, occasionally swapping weather information with headquarters and munching on a few snacks. His 110-foot tower, dubbed the Cedar Bridge Tower, stands next to Route 539 near the Barnegat-Lacey township boundary, three miles north of Route 72.

“On a really good day, I can see skyscrapers in Philly,” said the retired Navy man, a Barnegat resident. “I’ve picked up ships on the ocean.”

But when Morse sees smoke, he rotates the compass mounted at the room’s center until it points in the right direction, then records the degree of the angle between the fire and due north.

Once a spotter in another of the state’s 21 fire towers has done the same, they can triangulate the exact position of the fire. Morse then starts to call firefighters.

“Guys tell me that how high my voice is tells them how fast to go,” Morse said.

Those guys include both the full-time section wardens, such as David Achey, 30, of Waterford, and Shawn Judy, 30, of Chatsworth, and the $12-an-hour part-time district wardens on call, such as Bill DeGroff, 52, of Chatsworth and Eddie Mathis, 51, of Tuckerton. They usually get to a fire in about 10 minutes.

Achey and Judy work 40 to 80 hours a week, getting comp time, not overtime, after a serious fire such as last week’s Bass River blaze works them to the bone. Full story in POAC.

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