OCEAN COUNTY – Authorities believe prescribed burns helped limit the damage caused by wildfires that tore through the area last month. In at least one instance, proactive measures saved residents from reliving an old nightmare.
“The Log Swamp Wildfire in Little Egg Harbor occurred on April 15,” shared Trevor Raynor, Assistant Division Fire Warden with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. “It burned 1,607 acres and was contained by the following day.”
Raynor credited the quick containment of the fire to prescribed burns conducted in the area on February 26 and February 27. The wildfire was burning with a south wind and ran into the prescribed burn block, which stopped it in its tracks.
“If that wildfire had crossed the road, it would have been a big deal,” Raynor said. “It could have posed a significant threat to Warren Grove.”
The area, located in the heart of the Pine Barrens, has a history of forest fires that still haunt the memories of many locals. In addition, Warren Grove is recognized for its military bombing range, which has been linked to previous wildfires, including a 2007 inferno. That wildfire ravaged 18,000 acres of the Pinelands, prompting hundreds of residents to evacuate.
Prescribed burns, also known as controlled burns, are carefully planned and executed fires set by firefighters to remove fuel and grasses from specified areas. This helps to create a firebreak that can stop a wildfire from spreading out of control.
Pine needles and dead and dry vegetation are among the things that can fuel a forest fire. Controlled burns are conducted before the spring fire season from March 15 to May 15.
“We do the prescribed burns when the leaves are off the trees, and it’s the cooler months,” explained Raynor. “It’s when the weather is working in our favor, which means taking into account humidity and other factors.”
On an annual basis, firefighters strategically conduct approximately 2,000-3,000 acres of controlled burns from Barnegat to Bass River. Statewide, prescribed burns cover more than 20,000 acres of land. Firefighters typically return to an area every five to seven years to set up designated blocks. Controlled burns are generally scheduled between October 15 through March 15.
“We get extended on a case-by-case basis based on fire danger,” shared Raynor. “The extension is day by day, typically until April 1. After that, we’re well into fire season, and our primary objection at that point is wildfire suppression.”
A prescribed burn turned out to be advantageous in controlling the Spring Hill Wildfire in Woodland Township on March 31, 2019. As the wildfire swept through 9,021 acres of the Pinelands, embers were carried by strong winds into other areas. As a result, some fortunately landed in the region that had undergone controlled burns just a few days prior.
“The prescribed burns are done around ignition sources,” Raynor said. “That way any future wildfires that might want to come out can’t get out of there.”
One example would be setting up a controlled burn around a campground, where people might light campfires. Prescribed burns are also initiated near communities where lives and property could be at risk.
As the days get warmer and the wind picks up, it becomes more dangerous to conduct controlled burns. The fact that leaves have not yet fully grown back on trees and other plants can accentuate the problem.
According to Raynor, the sun’s rays penetrating the bare tree canopy cause the forest floor to be preheated. As a result, any form of ignition, including a controlled burn, could potentially ignite a ferocious blaze. Additionally, winds can exacerbate the fire, causing it to spread rapidly.
The concept of backfiring in fighting wildfires is something entirely different. Firefighters use this tactic to burn out fuels between the main body of the fire and a control line. This has nothing to do with the supposition that a prescribed burn has somehow failed.
“We use torches to light the fire when the fire is too intense for us to put it out with water,” Raynor said. “We burn out the fuels ahead of the main fire, which prevents its spread and should contain the wildfire.”
The investigation into the Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire, which burned 3,809 acres in Manchester on April 11, is ongoing. However, authorities have indicated that backfires helped bring the fire under control.
A prescribed burn in the area four years ago also contributed to stopping the further spread of the fire in Manchester. The Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire forced the evacuation of some area residents, but no one was injured.
Raynor suggested preparation is critical for people who may one day receive alerts to leave their homes because of wildfires.
“Get ready, set, go,” reminded Raynor. “Have your bags packed and know that the ‘set’ means there’s a wildfire nearby. Listen to your local officials, warnings or advice on evacuation. And once the ‘go’ comes, know we don’t take that lightly. When we say ‘go’ that means to evacuate.”