At the same time, Trenton lawmakers are pushing measures, now in committee, to promote more such fires on state and private lands by limiting liability and creating a certification program for prescribed-burn managers and procedures for conducting the burns.
But the efforts come at a time when the state is increasingly vulnerable to another conflagration, say private fire and forestry experts.
Insufficient prescribed burns over decades, aggressive efforts to stop naturally occurring blazes, dangerously high fuel levels, and increased development in and around wooded areas will make the next fire much more costly, they say.
The concerns are part of a growing national debate over forest management that's being examined especially in wildfire-prone states such as California, Colorado, Florida, and Arizona, where 19 firefighters were killed battling an out-of-control blaze near Yarnell on June 30.
"What really astonishes is that the Pinelands are among the most flammable landscapes in America," said Stephen Pyne, a nationally renowned fire historian, author, and professor at Arizona State University. ". . . The extensive urban development that surrounds the contemporary woods lies next to the biotic equivalent of a munitions depot or an abandoned tenement rotting to combustibles.
"The Pinelands are perhaps the most famous unknown fire-scape in America. . . . Sooner or later, southern New Jersey will know the fire equivalent of a Hurricane Sandy, or worse."
More prescribed burns "are needed everywhere," said Troy Ettel, director of forest conservation for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports efforts to protect land, water, and air in 50 states and 37 countries. "You need to clear out the fuel loads.
"But we are so far behind that, fire alone can't do what we need to do to restore these landscapes," said Ettel, former director of conservation of the New Jersey Audubon Society. "Fuel loads are too high and houses too close, so we have to do mechanical thinning, physically removing some of the fuel."
The state needs burning and thinning, especially near highways and houses, said Bill Patterson, retired professor of forestry at the University of Massachusetts. "I would use more thinning the closer you get to development," he said. "You just use common sense."
The Christie administration has been trying to address the state's vulnerabilities, "but there's been 40 years of neglect and poor forest policies," said certified forester Bob Williams, owner and founder of Pine Creek Forestry L.L.C., a Laurel Springs, Camden County, firm that manages forests. "That's why the Legislature is trying to move.
"The DEP [state Department of Environmental Protection] is doing a really good job of making homeowners and townships aware that they have to cut the brush around buildings," he said. "But Mother Nature is going to do what it does."
State officials usually conduct burns from October through March and are heavily dependent on weather conditions. They prefer doing them when the temperature is below 60 degrees and the winds are less than 25 m.p.h.
"When you burn, you're lessening the fuel load and changing the forest so it won't burn as fiercely," said Bill Edwards, chief of the Bureau of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
Fire is "a tool to reduce the mid-layer" of brush and vegetation so that flames are less likely to reach the crown of the trees and spread, said Lynn Fleming, director of the New Jersey Forestry Service.
"There is good fire and bad fire," she said. "We're even doing mechanical thinning in the forest to reduce fuel.
"The priority is the protection of the public. We try to engage private landowners to be part of" fire safety efforts.
When the deadly April 1963 wildfire started, it was driven by strong winds that powered it over forests in Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. Black smoke blocked the sun as the blaze forced the evacuation of thousands and burned more than 450 buildings.
"I remember it as a kid," said professional historian Paul W. Schopp of Riverton. "The acrid smoke even permeated my neighborhood in Haddon Township."
The massive blaze went down in New Jersey history as one of the state's most costly and catastrophic fires.
"We plan for the '63 wildfire," said Mike Achey, a state assistant division fire warden. "Everything is based on that event. We feel confident we're planning for the worst-case scenario."
The level of fuel in the forest could make the next fire worse than the one in 1963, private fire and forestry experts say.
"The Pinelands' capacity to burn is ratcheting up faster than the New Jersey Forest Fire Service's ability to suppress," Pyne said. "Still, even a fully modern system will fail during the worst case, and it is the worst case that will likely define the future narrative of Pinelands fire."
Pines need fire
Along the Mullica River, about two dozen firefighters became fire-starters Monday. The number differs from one job to the next, depending on its size. The same group will move from one site to another from morning to early evening, covering hundreds of acres.
Local fire and police departments and county communications centers are notified ahead of time.
"The burn doesn't hurt the trees," Assistant State Forest Fire Warden Steven Holmes said as he walked along a line of flames. "Pine trees need fire to survive.
"They'd be overtaken by oak trees. The heat actually helps release the seeds from the pine cones, and the ashes add nutrients to the ground."
Scores of burns - probably more than 100 - have been conducted this year across New Jersey in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Salem Counties. Fire-prone forests are targeted every five to seven years, while grassy areas are burned annually.
Fire is "a natural part of the ecosystem, and we have interfered," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We have allowed more people to move into the Pinelands and suppress the fires because we have so much development.
"We try to mimic nature with prescribed burns, but we don't," he said. "We put people in vulnerable places, then wonder why properties are destroyed."