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Burning Time Running Short in N.J. Forests

Fire-Rescue NewsFrom the Atlantic City Press Published: Thursday, March 13, 2008

By ROB SPAHR Staff Writer, 609-978-2012

White smoke clouds rose high above several portions of the state's pinelands Wednesday as knee- to waist-high flames crawled across the forest's floor, charring everything in their path. Those responsible for setting the fires stood amid the smoke and flames holding drip torches and wearing bright-yellow jackets with "New Jersey Forest Fire Service" written across the front.

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In all, about 15 fires were set, from Cumberland County to Morris County, as part of the service's annual prescribed burning process, during which flames are used to decrease the amount of flammable vegetation in the forest.

If left unattended, this vegetation acts as a fuel that can increase the speed and intensity of wildfires.

The firefighters use the drip torches to ignite the small fires, which they can then control with plow lines and hoses filled with water or foam.

The Forest Fire Service finds itself in a game of "Beat the Clock" this year, with Saturday's start of the spring fire season quickly approaching and less than half its planned prescribed burns completed. Every year the service maps out 15,000 to 20,000 acres of the state's about 3 million acres of forest where prescribed burns are needed. The targeted areas are typically chosen based on a repeating cycle.

"Once an area is burned, you really wouldn't have good potential for fire there for another five to 10 years because fire wouldn't be able to carry. So we try to space it out so we can reburn areas as needed," Assistant State Fire Warden Jim Petrini said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Petrini estimated, only about 7,000 or 8,000 acres have been burned this season due to an abundance of inclement weather.

"It's like threading a needle. We have to wait for the conditions to be dry enough to burn, but not so dry or windy where the fire can become uncontrolled," said Horace Somes, the division fire warden of the Forest Fire Service's central region, which stretches from Burlington County to Middlesex County. "What we look for is a happy medium. But this year it seems like every three days we had rain showers."

Now the Forest Fire Service must play catch-up.

"We're a little behind where we want to be, but we're doing everything we can. It all depends on the weather," said Frank Bollante, the assistant division fire warden for the Forest Fire Service's southern region, which encompasses all six of the state's southern-most counties.

This year about 4,700 acres were selected for prescribed burning in the southern region, but Bollante estimated that only 2,600 had been burned as of Wednesday afternoon.

The state could continue to do prescribed burns past March 15, but that extension is only granted on a day-to-day basis.

"It is something that we will definitely have to discuss," said Petrini, who added that the sun typically starts to shine brighter for longer around this time of year. And since the leaves will not be back on trees for some time, he said, there is little shade available to block the fuel on the ground from the sun's intense heat.

And if the entire acreage is not burned this year, Petrini said, there is still no guarantee the remaining sections would be burned next year.

"It's hard to tell, because between now and then other areas could become more of a risk," he said.

One of the areas burned Wednesday was a section of the Stafford Forge Wildlife Management Area that was left unburned by a wildfire that damaged more than 17,000 acres of pinelands in Burlington and Ocean counties in May.

Initially the Forest Fire Service hoped to burn about 2,200 acres in the Stafford Forge area this year. To date,however,inclement weather has limited the prescribed burning in this area to just a few hundred acres.

During the May wildfire, Petrini said, firefighters attempted to set a backfire to deter the main fire from spreading farther, but were unsuccessful when rain eventually fell on the area and wind shifted in the opposite direction.

"We didn't want to leave that parcel unburned, so now we were trying to tie it in to the whole area where the Warren Grove fire was," Petrini said, adding that the Forest Fire Service also burned multiple sections of the immense Wharton State Forest where an August wildfire damaged more than 2,000 acres.

Even if the Forest Fire Service is able to burn all 20,000 acres it planned to burn, Petrini called that acreage "a drop in the bucket" when compared with the 3 million acres of forest in the state.

Petrini insisted that the Forest Fire Service being short 20 percent of its recommended staff due to budgetary constraints will not be a factor if it isn't able to burn its planned acreage.

"That hasn't affected us. We have an organization that just picks it up when we need to," he said. "If we don't have enough folks in one area, we find a way to move people there. We just need a little cooperation from Mother Nature."
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