Fire in the Pinelands, on purpose

Fire burns in the Pinelands in Lacey Township N.J. on Feb. 23 as part of a programs of controlled burns conducted by New Jersey environmental officials.
Fire burns in the Pinelands in Lacey Township N.J. on Feb. 23 as part of a programs of controlled burns conducted by New Jersey environmental officials. (WAYNE PARRY / Associated Press)
Posted: February 29, 2012

LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Where there's smoke, there's fire. But where there's fire, there's not always a forest fire, local residents found out to their relief.

A controlled burn Friday sent plumes of smoke wafting across the Garden State Parkway, to the alarm of nearby residents.

A sign near the roadside - directly in front of the flames - assured passersby that the state Forest Fire Service was conducting a controlled burn. New Jersey environmental authorities say they are conducting such burns in wooded areas around the state.

The small and closely monitored fires are designed to burn leaves, pine needles, cones, small branches, and other flammable materials on the forest floor to prevent them from becoming fuel in a larger blaze.

Steve Maurer, a warden with the Forest Fire Service, said nearly 15,000 acres had been treated since October.

"Anything that can carry the fire up into the trees is what we look for and get rid of," he said.

New Jersey's prime forest-fire season starts in late March or early April. In 2007, a forest fire burned nearly 17,000 acres of the Pinelands, one of the largest fires in recent history.

That blaze was sparked by a National Guard pilot on a training mission who dropped a flare into tinder-dry Pinelands. But fire is a natural aspect of the Pinelands and plays a key part in its ecology. The heat from forest fires causes some trees to drop their seeds into the soil, generating new trees, and the flames clear out dead ones.

According to the Forest Fire Service, reports of massive wildfires in New Jersey date back at least to the 1700s. In 1755, there was a fire 30 miles long stretching from Barnegat to Little Egg Harbor.

In 1895, records show that 49 fires burned 60,000 acres in Burlington, Atlantic, and Ocean Counties. Surveys in 1872 and 1885 indicated that 100,000 to 130,000 acres burned annually in the Pine Barrens alone.

As New Jersey's population grew, so did the need to protect homes and property from forest fires. The Forest Fire Service was founded in 1906.

One of the main components of preventing large forest fires is the use of controlled burns.

Using drip torches that leak small amounts of flaming fuel onto grass and leaves in areas targeted for burning, crews set the fires, which consume the ground-level fuel and then burn out.

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