Illegal campfire started N.J.’s largest wildfire in 15 years, fire official says

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

A wildfire in Wharton State Forest — the biggest to hit New Jersey in 15 years — is burning in an area state environmental officials have warned is most at-risk for forest fires statewide.

An illicit campfire ignited the blaze Sunday morning that has since spread to about 13,500 acres in Atlantic and Burlington counties in the Pinelands, New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin said Tuesday. The fire is about 85% contained, with firefighters aiming to limit its spread to 15,175 acres, McLaughlin added.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in a 2019 report identified the wildfire risk in that area as “extreme” because of its proliferation of grasses, shrubs, trees, and other “wildfire fuel hazards.”

The blaze serves as an urgent reminder for state environmental officials of the need for good forest management, including the removal of invasive species and tree-thinning to reduce vegetation that can fuel fires, one environmentalist said.

“It was only a matter of time before we had that kind of fire,” said Jeff Tittel, a longtime environmental activist from Hunterdon County. “They’re just lucky it’s in the middle of Wharton State Forest and not in like Manchester in Ocean County, where there are thousands of people.”

Investigators early on suspected a lightning strike during the stormy holiday weekend ignited the fire but soon discovered remnants of a campfire someone set illegally in an area not sanctioned for fires, McLaughlin said.

Investigators from the New Jersey State Police, Office of Emergency Management, New Jersey State Park Police, and county prosecutors’ offices now are trying to identify the culprit, who could be ordered to pay restitution if found guilty, McLaughlin said.

Officials haven’t yet determined how much it has cost the state and local municipalities to fight the blaze.

There’s legislation now pending that would address some of these issues.

One bill would require the Department of Environmental Protection to reimburse local municipalities for costs incurred in responding to emergencies in state parks and forests. Another would award local governments state grants up to $1,500 to implement a forest stewardship plan.

New Jersey has almost 2 million acres of forests, accounting for 40% of the state’s total land area, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Wharton State Forest is the biggest one, sprawling over more than 110,000 acres.

Wildfire season longer

The wildfire is the state’s largest since 2007, when a flare deployed during a military exercise at the Air National Guard’s Warren Grove bombing range sparked a blaze that burned 17,000 acres, prompted thousands to evacuate, and damaged or destroyed more than 50 homes.

The ongoing Wharton wildfire comes at a time when climate change has slowly extended New Jersey’s fire season, which once ran from mid-March to late May, McLaughlin said.

“We’re starting to see our fire seasons shift and become less seasonal, and perhaps more year-round or more extended,” he said.

A longer fire season hasn’t resulted in more fires, though. About 1,000 wildfires occur on average every year, down from about 1,500 annually 20 years ago, McLaughlin said.

Most stay small, burning less than five acres, he said. “Major” wildfires — those that spread to more than 100 acres — generally only occur two or three times a year, he added.

And most are started by humans, whether accidentally or intentionally, McLaughlin said.

Tittel called on policymakers to restrict development in or near forests, saying over-pumping the aquifer that provides water to homes and businesses dries out soil and increases wildfire risks.

“We should be limiting public access in those high-risk areas too, or we’re going to end up having more and more fires — and they’re going to get worse as the planet and our climate get warmer and our ground gets drier,” Tittel said.

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