After Historic NJ Forest Fire, Legislators Push for More State Funding to Help Towns Fight Wildfires

Just days after first responders and firefighters safely extinguished a massive forest fire that burned over 15,000 acres in New Jersey’s Wharton State Forest, Senator Jean Stanfield, Assemblyman Michael Torrissi and Assemblyman Brandon Umba moved to sponsor legislation requiring state authorities to better compensate locals for forestry stewardship activities and for emergency wildfire response conducted on public lands.

“Although Pinelands fires generally do not cause casualties, property loss can amount to millions of dollars for each fire,” Senator Stanfield (R-Westampton) said. “These fires often don’t spread to residential communities because of the hundreds of hours of brave work put in by our firefighters and the Forest Fire Service, but this all comes at a cost for many communities in the Pinelands, which already have a limited tax base.”

Members of the 8th District legislative delegation are backing two bills that would defray some of the local costs for fighting and preventing wildfires.

One proposal would require the Department of Environmental Protection to reimburse local municipalities for the costs incurred by responding to wildfires and other emergencies within state parks or forests.

Another would require the agency to increase the maximum award for grants issued from the “Forest Stewardship Incentive Fund” – which helps owners of forested land to pay for the cost of implementing a forest stewardship plan – from $1,500 to $2,500.

“The whole ecosystem benefits when we adopt policies that promote forest management and wildfire prevention,” said Assemblyman Umba (R-Medford). “Healthy forests and state parks help protect water quality, off-set air pollution and ensure the preservation of dedicated areas for wildlife to live and residents to recreate.”

“I want to again thank our state partners for their work, side-by-side with the local first responders, in bringing the Mullica River Fire under control,” Assemblyman Michael Torrissi, Jr. (R-Hammonton) said. “Now let’s come together on this with an agreement that ensures habitats, homes and farms in the Pinelands remain strong and safe this wildfire season.”

The total cost of the response to the Mullica River Forest Fire is not yet known, though property losses for the 2002 Jakes Branch wildfire – which consumed just 1,277 acres of Pineland forest near Berkeley, NJ, incinerated at least one residence and prompted hundreds of evacuations – eventually totaled more than $1 million.

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