Barnegat Recalls Lessons Learned From 2007 Forest Fire

May 17, 2017

Around 4 p.m. on May 15, 2007, then-Barnegat Township Mayor Alfonso Cirulli took a call at home from a concerned resident who had noticed burning embers landing on her property and others in her neighborhood.

Cirulli called David Breeden, who was township administrator at the time, and asked if he had heard of any fire. Cirulli said Breeden was not aware of anything, but it did not take long for town hall and police to get besieged by calls, at which time they learned the frightening truth – a major forest fire had the western areas of the township in its crosshairs.

“I thought we were going to lose everything west of the Parkway,” he said.

Cirulli made those comments at a May 11 meeting of the township’s Wildfire Safety Council, in which the group commemorated the 10th anniversary of the May 15-16 forest fire that burned approximately 17,000 acres and forced numerous communities in Barnegat and Stafford townships to evacuate. The massive blaze originated from a flare from an Air National Guard F-16 fighter jet at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range.

Cirulli, who is now a township committeeman, said that on the second day of the fire, wind conditions kept changing.

“Just when we thought it was getting under control, the wind would change direction and it would start up again,” he said.

The former mayor said Barnegat got a great gift from Mother Nature, as a drenching thunderstorm hit the area late in the afternoon of May 16.

“Without that rain, who knows how long the fire would have lasted,” he said.

At the meeting, speakers recalled the chaos of that day but also how Barnegat has taken various steps to prepare in case another wildlfire should hit.

Police Lt. Jeff Ryan said authorities had not been notified of the fire in a timely manner.

“Pinewood Estates, Brighton at Barnegat, Horizons and Heritage Point north and south all had to be evacuated,” he said. “I can recall being at Brighton unable to see more than 5 feet in front of me, knocking on doors, telling people that they had to leave right away. Some people argued and said that they did not want to leave. But when we say you have to leave, you have to leave right away.”

He said since that fire, communication has greatly improved.

“We didn’t have a Facebook page or a Nixle alert system,” said Ryan. “We can get the word out a lot faster.” 

Ryan said that in the midst of all the police activity, he had to take time out to evacuate his own family.

“I had to make a lot of trips back and forth from the house,” he said. “Many of us were not prepared on what we had to do in case of a major evacuation.”       

Major Tom Still of the Air National Guard said the range was closed for a year and a half after the fire.

“The pilot who dropped the flare was too low,” he said. “He was below 500 feet, and as a result, the flare did not burn out in time.”

Since that time, he said, the outfit no longer drops flares and has instituted various procedures “so this doesn’t happen again.”

D. Scottt Knauer, a state forest fire service warden, said the fire spread due to strong winds from the west.

“Combine that with dry conditions and the sandy soil that does not hold water, the fire burned very aggressively,” he said. 

Barnegat has developed a reputation as being very proactive on wildfire prevention. John Cowie, a member of the fire safety council and outreach coordinator for the forest fire service, said that in 2009, the fire company began participating in “Ready, Set, Go,” which helps communities in developing initiatives to halt the spread of forest fires. The company’s commitment to wildfire prevention resulted in the International Association for Fire Chiefs giving it an RSG Volunteer Fire Company Award of Excellence. Cowie said Barnegat was the only volunteer outfit of four companies at that time to receive such an award.

He said “Ready, Set, Go” gets its name for the fact that communities first have to take responsibility and prepare long before the threat of a forest fire so residents and their homes are ready in case one breaks out. By “set” you pack emergency items and stay aware of the latest news on the fire from the local media, fire department and public safety alerts. “Go” means not just to evacuate, but to follow your personal wildfire action plan so firefighters can best maneuver their resources to combat the fire.

Barnegat has also participated in a Firewise program conducted with the forest fire service. This encourages communities to develop projects to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire. To earn a Firewise designation, communities use a five-step process that includes developing an action plan that guides their residential risk reduction activities, while engaging and encouraging homeowners to become active participants in building a safer place to live.

Horizons at Barnegat and Four Seasons at Mirage have already earned Firewise designations. Brighton, Pinewood Estates and Pheasant Run are currently seeking the designation.

In addition, Cowie said that in 2014, Barnegat was one of 18 communities in the nation that was selected to participate in a federal Fire Adapted Communities program. The pilot program is coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service, along with Nature Conservancy, Watershed Research Training Center and the Fire Learning Network.

“The program helped us continue what we had already been doing,” said Cowie, who is fire prevention specialist for the Barnegat Fire Co. “We have made a lot of efforts to reach out to the community and educate people on wildfire prevention.”

Deputy Mayor Frank Caputo said these initiatives and programs fall under the category of “lessons learned from the fire.”

“Barnegat’s answer was a concerted effort to meet with and include all groups affected, spread the word neighbor to neighbor, and draw on the strength of existing organizations’ experience in this historically fire-prone landscape,” he said.

— Eric Englund

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