Pinelands Blaze, Now Contained, Was Largest Since 2007 Disaster

Photo by Ryan Morrill.

A forest fire that originated in the Penn State Forest in Burlington County near the Barnegat Township border over the weekend has been 100 percent contained, according to a New Jersey State Forest Fire Service official.

John Rieth, an assistant warden with the forest fire service, said the wildfire burned 11,638 acres of the Pinelands. He said the fire broke out around 2 p.m. Saturday and was largest wildfire in the Pinelands since the May 2007 blaze that destroyed 17,000 acres and resulted in mass evacuations in Stafford and Barnegat townships.

By declaring it 100 percent contained, Rieth said a perimeter had been set up around the fire to stop its forward progress.

“Deeming it under control means there is some burning occurring inside the perimeter, but the exterior of the fire should not expand,” he said. “Firefighters will continue to monitor the situation to make sure no fire embers escape.”

At the height of the blaze, Rieth said, there were approximately 50 firefighters and 17 trucks from the state’s forest fire service working to contain the fire. A helicopter was utilized to help monitor any spreading. Sections of Route 72 were closed to traffic.

Rieth said there was no threat to any homes or property.

“It’s a pretty remote area, but we had some local companies on standby in case there was a threat to homes,” he said

In a press release, Gov. Phil Murphy said, “The Department of Environmental Protection (of which the forest fire service is part), the state police and our municipal partners did an outstanding job in controlling the wildfire to ensure the safety of our residents. I commend the brave men and women of the Forest Fire Service who responded quickly to minimize the spread of the fire’s expansion through the Pinelands.”

DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe surveyed the area Tuesday morning. In a statement, she said, “This fire could have been much worse had it not been for the critical work the forest fire service does throughout the year using prescribed burns to eliminate fuels that can cause wildfires.”

She said prescribed burns help reduce forest fire risk before prime wildfire season, which is usually April or May. At that time of year, fallen leaves, branches and twigs are abundant. Humidity can be low, and the weather is often warm and windy. Those conditions, coupled with a lack of new leaf growth, make forest debris more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sun.

Rieth said despite plentiful precipitation this winter and spring, that did little to prevent dry conditions from forming quickly.

“The soils have very low water retention,” he said. “After rainfall, it makes the soils to dry up in 24 hours.”

Rieth said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

“Reports that it was caused by a prescribed burn that went out of control were erroneous,” he said.

The forest fire service is seeking the public’s help in providing information about the fire. All tips will remain confidential and may be called in to State Police Sgt. Shaun Georgeson at the Tuckerton barracks, 609-296-3132. The state fire marshal, state park police, New Jersey State Police and the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office are assisting the forest fire service in the investigation.

— Eric Englund

Reposted from The Sandpaper