What Can New Jersey Learn from California’s Deadly Wildfires?

By WILLIAM EDWARDS | Jan 10, 2018

California wildfires again were front-page news in December. Huge wildfires burned from Los Angles down to San Diego; most were contained by the end of the year. We saw large, expensive homes threatened or outright burned down by the fires. Some fires are only halted when they reach the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Rosa, Calif., was decimated this past fall by wildfires. According to The New York Times, over 5,700 buildings were destroyed in northern California, 2,800 in Santa Rosa alone. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were 42 confirmed deaths caused by these fires.

I have been asked a few times if this type of disaster could happen in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. My answer is that it is certainly possible, just not as probable. Let’s take a look at what circumstances are different and what factors are similar.

Firstly, I would like to compare wildfires to hurricanes. This will help explain differences between New Jersey and California. Hurricanes are an occurrence we in New Jersey are very familiar with. The only thing that saves our coast from hurricanes is we generally don’t get hit with hurricanes. The Jersey Shore is subject to damage from both wave action and storm surge if a hurricane hits us. Even a Category 1 storm, like Sandy, can do extensive damage. Florida, however, gets hit by more hurricanes. Unlike New Jersey’s coast, which is comparatively sheltered, Florida sticks out into the ocean. In many ways it’s just hanging out there, waiting for a storm.

In California there are nearly annual occurrences that are conducive to the spread of wildfires. Back here conditions can occur; they are just rarer. But when conditions come together they are devastating.

A large factor in the spread of the recent California fires is foehn winds, commonly known as the Santa Ana or Diablo winds, which this year have gusted up to 70 mph and have been historically recorded to have blown up to 175 mph. These naturally occurring winds flow west over the mountains and power downslope into the valleys. They are warm and dry, and can occur on an annual basis. Thankfully here in New Jersey this does not occur. We can have wind events that can cause extreme fire danger, but they are infrequent. When those events here line up with dry weather, they have the potential to cause big fire problems.

A well-documented example of this is April 20-23, 1963, where three days of 25 to 40 mph winds combined with drought and low relative humidity contributed to a statewide wildfire disaster. Thirty-three major wildfires burned nearly 200,000 acres of forest, grass and marsh, mostly in the Pine Barrens. Statewide, over 400 structures were destroyed and seven people lost their lives. We have experienced other, lesser events of extreme fire danger since then, but nothing like this has occurred since, thankfully.

A big similarity is both the New Jersey Pine Barrens and California have highly flammable wildland fuels. In other words, the stuff that grows there burns really hot. I recently heard on a TV news report that some of the fires near Los Angeles were burning in areas that have not seen fire in 70 to 100 years. That actually is a historically normal fire interval for southern California. The problem is that since most of the fires over the last few decades are man caused in many areas, the fire occurrence has increased to 10- to 20-year intervals. This has caused other types of more flammable grasses to replace the other types of less hazardous growth. Another issue is a lot of the grasses growing on the hills of southern California are non-native and were introduced by European settlers. These species have pushed out the native grasses and are more flammable.

Drought and warming temperatures compound California’s problem. John Keeley, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, writes, “In Southern California, lower elevation ecosystems have burned more frequently than ever before. I think it’s partly climate, but also people starting fires during bad conditions. Bad conditions include extended droughts and dry fall days when the Santa Ana winds blow through the canyons.”

In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, our wildland fuels have been compared to southern California’s in regard to volatility. The highly resinous pitch pine needles easily support fires that burn through the forest crown. Our forest fuel problem is somewhat different in that it is caused by the exclusion of fire. It wasn’t always that way.

Thousands of years ago the people who would become the Lenapes moved into what would become New Jersey. These people began to burn the forest on an annual basis. They burned it because it was good for hunting and agriculture. It cleared out the forest so they could travel to the shore, and it protected them from wildfires. They burned the Pine Barrens for more than 1,000 years. When the Europeans arrived they found the Pines to be an open forest that you could ride a horse or drive a wagon through. The Europeans thought the Lenapes’ practice of forest burning to be dangerous and put a stop to it. But the Europeans still caused fires.

Moving ahead to the turn of the last century, annual acreage burned from wildfires in the Pine Barrens averaged over 100,000 acres. Now because of a high human population, fires cannot be simply left to burn. We are also a lot better at controlling fires. The Pine Barrens in many cases have grown into a wall of vegetation.  All that is left is a fire to get started on the right day. Thankfully, we don’t get the wind and dry weather with the frequency that occurs in California.

Another big similarity between southern California and our state is what causes fires. During certain times of the year, California can experience lightning-caused fires, but during the Santa Ana wind events, lightning almost never occurs. In New Jersey, dry lightning storms are rare. Statistically, only 1 percent of our wildfires is caused by lightning. What this means is almost all of these fires are caused by humans. During dry, windy conditions it’s easy for fires to occur accidentally. Downed power lines cause many fires. In California as well as New Jersey, arson – intentional, malicious fire setting – is also a major cause of wildfires.

It’s been said that if you learn by your own mistakes, you’re really smart. If you learn by the mistakes of others, you’re a genius. We have the opportunity to learn from what’s occurring in California. What can be done to help prevent the next New Jersey fire disaster?

Continue to support a robust State Forest Fire Service. Wildfires still need to be aggressively suppressed where they are found. Too many times emergency services become the victim of budget cuts in that interval between fire disasters. After the 1963 New Jersey Wildfire Disaster, several recommendations were made and implemented, including increased firefighting aircraft and ground force capabilities, better coordination among emergency response agencies and increased prescribed burning. All these initiatives require a skilled work force for these initiatives to be in place when best needed.

Follow the example of the Lenapes and prescribe burn as much of the Pine Barrens as safely practical. The State Forest Fire Service aggressively prescribe (control) burns on an average 15,000 acres of state, government, private forest and grasslands annually. It would burn more if not limited by the lack of conducive weather for safe, effective burning and resource availability. Private landowners, primarily cranberry growers, prescribe burn annually about 2,000 more acres. Since 2004, there have been attempts to pass legislation that would help increase prescribed burning by providing more liability protection and other benefits to burners. This legislative initiative, the Prescribed Burn Act, will again die in committee.

Manage the forest. This includes selective thinning and harvesting. This state has an aversion to cutting trees on public land in the Pine Barrens. Foresters find it difficult to get clearance to initiate projects. A managed forest would be more fire safe and healthier. The forest also would be more resistant to outbreaks of destructive forest pests such as the southern pine beetle. Some of the forest needs to be managed primarily for fire protection. Other agendas, including ecological, need to be secondary.

Community planning. Address potential wildfire issues in municipal master plans. Adopt community wildfire protection plans. Although we have faced dangerous wildfires for the last couple of centuries, there is generally little listed in municipal plans. The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, adopted as an ordinance by all communities in the Pinelands, does have some language that addresses firebreaks, building construction and road egress. My opinion is additional attention to planning would be beneficial.

Take personal ownership of the wildfire hazard problem. Home/land owners in the Pine Barrens need to respect fire and take steps to protect their property. There are lots of tools available: FIREWISE, Ready Set Go and Fire Adaptive Communities. Information on all these programs can be easily obtained through the Forest Fire Service or local fire departments. Maintaining your property is an ongoing process. My experience is that if you wait until the day of the fire to start this work, it’s usually too late.

In conclusion, New Jersey can, and probably will, experience another wildfire disaster, although thankfully we do not experience the nearly annual dangerous conditions found in California. We can take steps to minimize the impact, but it’s really up to us.

William Edwards of Waretown, N.J., retired in June as state forest fire warden.

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