NJ Forest Fire Service Developing New Prescribed Burn Guidelines

Sep 05, 2018
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill Smoke from a prescribed burn in Little Egg Harbor Township in March 2018.

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service is developing new guidelines for prescribed burning following the signing of legislation by Gov. Phil Murphy that provides the service with more tools to conduct the operations, which are critical to protection of public safety as well as forest health management.

“The legislation the governor signed last week provides the Forest Fire Service with more flexibility in determining the objectives of prescribed burns and provides clearer goals for owners of private property and nonprofits to utilize controlled burns to manage the health of ecosystems,” said N.J. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe.

Every year, the state Forest Fire Service aims to set prescribed burns on approximately 20,000 acres of state-owned and other lands. As the DEP explained, “These burns, also known as controlled burns, can take place in both forested and grassland areas and are critical to reducing fuels such as leaves, pine needles, fallen trees and branches, and shrubs that can act as tinder, causing wildfires to become difficult to control. These burns also improve ecosystem health and diversity by removing competing and invasive plant and tree species and enhancing wildlife habitats.”

The new state measure expands the definition of burn objectives to specifically allow for controlled burns to achieve ecosystem diversity, such as creation of wildlife habitat, rather than to act solely as a tool to reduce hazardous fuels.

According to the DEP, “The legislation also sets reasonable liability expectations for operations conducted by the Forest Fire Service and any other owners of wild lands. In addition, the legislation strengthens the ability of the Forest Fire Service to assess and address wildfire dangers on wild lands. Under the legislation, the Forest Fire Service may collect fees when appropriate on land not owned by the state to carry out management activities.”

The service worked closely with stakeholders, including nonprofits, environmental organizations and outdoor sports organizations, to help the Legislature craft the bill, which passed unanimously in both houses. Murphy signed the measure, A1675, into law on Aug. 24.

“New Jersey has long had a vigorous and strong prescribed burning program that is respected across the nation and is often studied by other wildland managers, scientists and firefighting agencies,” said state Firewarden Gregory McLaughlin. “This legislation will make the program even stronger and more effective. We plan to begin implementing many of the new measures in the next prescribed burning season.”

Prescribed burning typically takes place during late winter and early spring, depending on weather conditions, because lower relative humidity and cured fuels are more conducive for managing burns so that they better consume targeted vegetation and debris. Sometimes, however, extremely wet conditions during the controlled burn season may limit the ability of the Forest Fire Service to achieve its acreage goal. The new law provides the service more flexibility to conduct burning operations at other times of year when conditions are favorable to achieve other resource management objectives.

During controlled burns, Forest Fire Service personnel evaluate factors such as wind and moisture, and then, if conditions are favorable, use handheld torches to set smaller fires to burn away fallen leaves, fallen branches, pine needles and other debris on the forest floor.

The New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry and the Forest Fire Service work to provide the public with advance notice of prescribed burning operations. When in doubt about the source of smoke or if a fire is part of a prescribed burning operation, call 911 or 877-WARN-DEP (877-927-6337). —J.K.-H.

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