For the past 40 years, Medford resident Tom Gerber has been involved in the state Forest Fire Service, a profession he picked up on from his father and grandfather.
Gerber, who’s the state Forest Fire Service section warden in southern Burlington County, entered the state’s fire service after having lived in the Pinelands National Reserve for most of his life and growing up with firefighters.
“My father had been the warden, and at that time, there weren’t a lot of homes in the woods like now,” Gerber said. “My father did belong to the fire department. I had spent most of my time being focused on wildfires.”
Gerber hasn’t kept his fire service in New Jersey. He has lent his skills and expertise to fight fires in Massachusetts, California, New York, North Carolina, and, more recently, Alaska when activity in New Jersey is exceptionally low. In Burlington County, he’s been from Willingboro to Washington Township and in between, which he estimates to being around 100,000 acres.
As a warden, Gerber said his main job is to make sure a considerable amount of effort is put in to prevent unintentional fires from occurring, and to do controlled burns to keep the forest alive.
When a fire occurs in the area, Gerber said he’s usually the guy who coordinates the firefighting effort to keep fires contained and get residents to safety, if they’re in the path of a wildfire.
For larger fires, such as the one that occurred in Wharton State Forest over the summer, he added everyone works under an incident command system, which helps the state and local firefighters battle the blazes.
“When it comes to law enforcement, we affix a cause to every fire, which needs to be thoroughly investigated,” he said. “We’re trained investigators, so we actually figure out what started a fire. If it’s a human-caused fire, we trace that back and take appropriate law enforcement action.”
Gerber said he will often offer tips to residents and fire departments on how to prevent wildfires, especially in the Pinelands. He added people should monitor the fire danger conditions posted at every fire tower, major fire departments or on the state’s website; to clear buildings of dry brush; and to be mindful of combustible materials around trees.
At the top of fire towers, Gerber said he and other observers record weather conditions, call for investigations of smoke or help pinpoint the exact location of fires. The tower in Medford, which is nearly 150 feet tall, towers over trees and has a 360-degree view of towers within at least 25 miles.
As a warden, he keeps equipment on standby at his home, such as a brush truck that holds 300 gallons of water and can maneuver on unpaved roads with an extra tank of gas, tools and saws to practically allow him to be self-sufficient when initially responding to a fire.
Gerber said what’s become tougher over the years is the placement of homes where fires in the past have historically burnt a significant amount of acreage (roughly five out of 1,500 wildfires each year become major incidents).
“In the early days, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into placing homes in these areas,” he said. “Now, we work very closely with the Pinelands Commission and such to say, ‘hey, this a high-fire danger area, maybe we better not place these homes in this particular setting in harm’s way.’”
Through his 40 years of dedication to the state’s fire service and collecting a wealth of knowledge from the industry, Gerber said if he were to enter in to any other profession, he’d be a full-time cranberry grower. He currently grows cranberries.
He added he has some extended family members who joined the fire service and who are also focused on wildfires, but his daughter is not currently involved.He hopes for her to be “attached to it in some other form.”
In the near or distant future, Gerber hopes to be able to mentor other firefighters in the state and local services so they can help keep their respective communities safe.
Those looking to get involved with the state’s forest fire service can visit FireWise.org or visit the state Division of Forest Fire Service within the Department of Environmental Protection at NJParksAndForests.org.