The Forest Fire Service has responded this year to 1,034 wildfires that burned 17,979 acres in the state.
Fourteen of the blazes were considered major wildfires, including the Flat Iron wildfire in Medford, where 212 acres burned and threatened 40 homes. The year’s conflagrations qualified 2023 as the busiest fire season in more than a decade, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
With New Jersey facing increasing wildfire risks due to climate change, DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette announced that the governor office is providing an additional $3 million to the department’s Forest Fire Service budget to enhance safety through investments in new equipment and staff.
The investment was announced as part of a recent ceremony at Coyle Field Forest Fire Service Air Attack base in Burlington County, during which the Forest Fire Service also presented awards to individuals and agencies that have assisted during the state’s most active wildfire season in more than a decade.
Kristen Carr, deputy emergency management coordinator for the county’s Office of Emergency Management, was one of the award recipients. The ceremony coincided with Climate Week, from Sept. 17 to 24. That observance is an opportunity for the public to learn about climate change and actions that can be taken to mitigate its impact.
“The need to further strengthen our Forest Fire Service cannot be understated during Climate Week, as the impacts of climate change increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires right here at home,” LaTourette explained. “In addition to protecting lives and property, our Forest Fire Service assists with natural disasters, maintains hundreds of miles of roads, works alongside multiple cooperators to develop and implement strategic plans that reduce the risk of future wildfires, and lends its talents to other states when wildfires strike.”
The $3-million state investment will help upgrade the fire service’s aging fleet of equipment. All of its fire engines are built and modified at the service’s research and development facility, a significant cost savings. They are also equipped to access difficult-to-reach areas of state forests. Additional funding will also be made available to expand the fire service’s air support during the peak spring fire season and to hire full-time employees to fill critical vacancies.
Extended fire seasons
Fire seasons across the country are now longer, including in New Jersey. Wildfire season in in the state has historically been from mid-March through mid-May, but during the past decade, major fires have occurred in February and extended into summer.
The DEP sets a prescribed burning goal of 25,000 acres from January to March to combat wildfires, a goal state officials met from 2019 to 2020. During 2021 and 2022, some 17,000 acres were burned.
Fire service administrator and Fire Chief Greg McLaughlin said in March during a prescribed burning demonstration in Wharton State Forest that prevention activity starts with the “three Ps”: preparedness, protection and prevention.
In New Jersey, 99% of wildfires are caused by people, through accidents, carelessness and arson. The remainder are caused by lightning strikes. Major blazes continued to flare through this summer, with the most recent being the Dragway wildfire in late August that burned 1,778 acres, and the Airpark conflagration that burned more than 800 acres during Labor Day weekend.
Both fires were in the wildfire-prone Pinelands region, according to the NJDEP.
A new nationwide analysis of weather conditions in the past 50 years – conducted by the nonprofit Climate Central – found that the annual number of days with a high risk of wildfire increased by 10 days in north Jersey and four days in south Jersey.
The 2020 New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change notes that wildfire seasons are expected to continually get longer. The frequency of large fires will increase due to hot, dry periods that will result from increasing temperatures.
The 14 major wildfires that have occurred this year are:
- March 7: Governors Branch Wildfire (418 acres) in Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County;
- April 11: Jimmy’s Waterhole Wildfire (3,450 acres) in Manchester Township and Lakehurst Borough, Ocean County;
- April 12: Kanouse Wildfire (972 acres), West Milford Township, Passaic County;
- April 14: Log Swamp Wildfire (1,607 acres), Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County;
- April 18: River Road Wildfire (241 acres), Washington Township, Burlington County;
- May 13: Cannonball Wildfire (102 acres), Pompton Lakes Borough, Passaic County;
- May 29: Box Turtle Wildfire (158 acres), Monroe Township, Gloucester County;
- May 31: Allen Road Wildfire (5,474 acres), Bass River Township, Burlington County;
- June 2: Flatiron Wildfire (212 acres), Medford Township, Burlington County;
- June 9: City Line Wildfire (711 acres), Manchester Township, Ocean County, and Pemberton and Woodland Townships, Burlington County;
- June 9: Buzby Boggs Wildfire (703 acres), Evesham Township, Burlington County;
- June 19: Acorn Hill Wildfire (246 acres), Woodland Township, Burlington County;
- Aug. 20: Dragway Wildfire (1,778 acres), Waterford Township, Camden County, and Shamong and Medford, Burlington County,; and
- Sept. 2: Airpark Wildfire (810 acres), Lacey Township, Ocean County.
To learn more about wildfires in New Jersey, steps to protect property and other resources, visit www.njwildfire.org