Active forest fire prevention protects lives, property, and the health of New Jersey’s forests and natural resources. To reduce dense undergrowth and other forest debris that have the potential to fuel wildfires this spring, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Forest Fire Service is conducting prescribed burns throughout the state, Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette announced.
During prescribed burns, trained Forest Fire Service personnel use handheld torches to set smaller fires to burn away fallen leaves and branches, pine needles and other vegetation on the forest floor.
As New Jersey’s climate continues to change, forest maintenance, including prescribed burning, takes on even greater importance. New Jersey’s changing climate increases the risk for more frequent and larger wildfires due to longer, hotter periods of dry weather, as described in the first-ever New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change, released in 2020. Prescribed burns are carefully planned and managed based on atmospheric conditions and carbon emissions from prescribed burns represent a small fraction of the emissions that could be produced in a wildfire.Click to edit this placeholder text.
“Prescribed burning not only helps protect the lives and property of those who live in or near forested areas, it is also an important part of the state’s carbon defense strategy, protecting carbon stored in forests from wildfire risk,” Acting Commissioner LaTourette said. “By taking careful steps to manage forest health, we can avoid potentially catastrophic releases of carbon from wildfires that, due to climate change, are routinely destroying communities and ecosystems while increasing harmful emissions.”
Prescribed Burns: What to Expect
Prescribed burns are generally conducted during the fall and winter when vegetation contains less moisture and leaves are off, because this helps to reduce the amount of smoke produced. The Forest Fire Service follows a highly structured plan to manage temporary smoke impacts during prescribed burning season, which usually runs until mid-March.
The Forest Fire Service anticipates conducting prescribed burns on at least 30,000 acres, depending on favorable weather conditions. Most burns will occur on state-owned property such as state forests, parks and wildlife management areas, and other government lands. The Forest Fire Service also assists private landowners and nonprofit organizations to meet their management objectives through prescribed burning.
Residents and visitors in the vicinity of prescribed burns should expect to see large plumes of smoke and possibly experience temporary smoke impacts at this time of year. Peak wildfire season begins in late March and continues through early May, depending on rain fall and weather.
To sign up for text or email notifications of prescribed burns, follow this link. When in doubt about the source of smoke or if a fire is part of a prescribed burning operation, call 1-877-WARN-DEP (1-877-927-6337) or 911.
Motorists are reminded to use caution when approaching areas where prescribed burns are taking place, pay attention to reduced speed limits and be alert to the presence of Forest Fire Service trucks and personnel that may be working in roadways.
During New Jersey’s peak spring wildfire season, there are an abundance of fallen leaves, branches and twigs are abundant, along with increased daylight, lower humidity, and air that is often warm and windy. These weather conditions coupled with lack of new leaf growth make the debris on forest floors more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sun.
Wind, moisture and other conditions are considered in conducting prescribed burns, which influence a burn’s intensity and severity to accomplish various resource and ecological objectives, such as reducing hazard fuels and managing habitats.
Benefits of Prescribed Burns: Reduced Risk of Wildfire, Improved Carbon Storage
“Prescribed fires can be a valuable tool for managing carbon cycling and storage because, unlike wildfire, they allow us to choose the intensity, timing and return interval of fire across the landscape,” said Nicholas Skowronek a Climate, Fire and Carbon Cycle Sciences Research Forester with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, who has focused a significant amount of wildland fire research in the New Jersey Pinelands. “Our studies in New Jersey have shown that prescribed burns generally consume less vegetation and organic matter at the forest floor than wildfires and emit far less carbon. Because prescribed fires are less damaging to ecosystem function, over time they maximize and sustain long-term carbon storage and reduce potential damage from wildfire and invasive insects that can cause large losses of forest carbon.”
“The benefits of conducting prescribed burns to eliminate forest floor fuels are numerous,” said Greg McLaughlin, State Firewarden and Chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. “Reducing ground and ladder fuels helps mitigate wildfire risk, which in turn helps protect lives and property. Prescribed burns also create strategic fire breaks near developed areas that help with fire suppression efforts when a wildfire does occur.”Click to edit this placeholder text.
“Prescribed burning has multiple environmental benefits,” said Ray Bukowski, Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. “In addition to burning away materials that can fuel wildfires, prescribed burns can improve habitat for wildlife, limit insects and disease, manage competing species of plants and trees, and redistribute important nutrients into the soil. All of these activities help keep New Jersey’s forest ecosystem vibrant and healthy.”
Wildfires can have the greatest benefit in areas where people live in or near forests, grasslands and other natural areas. The sprawling Pinelands region in southern New Jersey is especially prone to wildfires, so much so that its ecosystem has adapted to depend on periodic wildfires for releasing of seeds for reproduction. Prescribed burns reduce the build-up of fuel in this part of the state, keeping the forest ecosystem thriving and healthy.
For example, this year, the Forest Fire Service will do a cooperative burn on approximately 200 acres in Mansfield Township, Warren County. The area includes part of the Pequest Wildlife Management Area and an adjacent private landowner’s property, with assistance from the Wildlife Management Institute and a Delaware River Watershed Initiative Grant.
In addition, the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, in Kingwood Township, has asked the Forest Fire Service to do a controlled burn in a 9.5-acre field on its property. The burn will be conducted as part of a native grassland/wildlife habitat restoration project undertaken by the church on their property with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service.
In 2020, the Forest Fire Service completed controlled burns on 18,854 acres of state-owned lands, 5,006 acres of other government-owned land and 2,268 acres of privately owned property, for a total of 26,128 acres.