Being born and raised in the West, I would never have expected to see the vast amount of rural forested area that I witnessed, of all places, in New Jersey. But there it was, miles of trees, with developments nestled within it for as far as the eye could see. This was the Pine Barrens. And for the last several years, it has been high on the national list of places that can burn, and burn big.
The last time it did was May of 2007. The Warren Grove Gunnery Range sits within the Pinelands and an Air National Guard F-16 ignited a 14,000 acre wildfire that forced the evacuation of 6,000 people and burned several homes. A 2016 article in Rolling Stone magazine, "Will America's Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey" caught many folks off guard with most of the news being western wildfire concerns. Yet, this 1.1 million acre tract of trees is home to some 500,000 people and is still growing. And it can burn big.
The State of New Jersey, and specifically, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service is working diligently to prepare their residents for future fire events. In March, we got a chance to meet with them on a State visit as part of our work with the Firewise USA™ program.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service utilizes a multi-pronged approach that marries up the Firewise USA™ program, The International Association of Fire Chief’s “Ready, Set, Go” program, New Jersey Fire Safety Councils, and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network into one effort called Sustainable Jersey. This program allows communities to build points towards achieving various levels of status which assists them in competing for risk reduction grant funding.
Given that New Jersey is heavily served by volunteer fire companies, the “Ready, Set, Go” program was a natural fit, especially since the Firewise USA™ program is the “Ready” part for them. The residents we met are deeply engaged with the state to reduce their risk because Sustainable Jersey helped to define what the various wildfire risk reduction programs can do and build upon the success of each locally.
We attended a meeting with over 75 participants in Barnegat, including the Chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, Greg McLaughlin. The large fires in recent memory are always on the minds of these residents and all had stories to tell about the Warren Grove fire.
So from a place many do not think of having significant wildfire, comes a unique approach to trying to reduce the risk ahead of the next “big one”. I think all of us can learn from the good work going on in New Jersey.
Photo credit: Warren Grove Gunnery Range by Tom Welle