Fire Officials Ramping Up Prescribed Burnings As Wildfire Season Approaches

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Forest Fire Service’s annual prescribed burning program is ramping up as part of a proactive strategy to mitigate the risk of more frequent and intense wildfires in a changing climate, enhance habitats for plants and animals, and safeguard ecosystems. As part of that plan, a new online information portal is designed to help the public understand and reduce fire risk, Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette announced today.

Following a very active wildfire year in 2023, the Forest Fire Service is introducing the New Jersey Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (NJWRAP), which compiles data and resources to assist residents, community leaders and fire professionals in taking actions to mitigate the threat of wildfire risk. Data in the new portal will also assist the Forest Fire Service to identify areas where prescribed burning may help mitigate wildfire risk.

“Prescribed fire not only fosters resilience and diversity in the landscape, but also helps to safeguard our communities,” Commissioner LaTourette said. “By executing planned prescribed fires throughout New Jersey’s wooded areas, we are limiting the risk of a catastrophic release of carbon during a wildfire.”

Locations where prescribed burns are taking place can be viewed on the Prescribed Fire Notifications map at njwildfire.org. Additionally, daily notifications are posted on the DEP Forest Fire Service’s Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) accounts. Text or email notifications of prescribed burns are also available by signing up via this link.

In 2024, the Forest Fire Service intends to treat 25,000 acres of forests, grasslands and marsh with prescribed fire. Meeting the targeted acreage will depend on favorable weather conditions from October through April, when most prescribed burning takes place in New Jersey.

Coming off an abnormally active fire year in 2023, with 1,194 wildfires burning in excess of 18,000 acres, makes the need for prescribed fire more important than ever.

“In 2023 we saw the busiest wildfire year in over 20 years with 14 major wildfires burning across New Jersey threatening over 200 homes, forcing evacuations and closing roads,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “The Forest Fire Service is ever vigilant in their efforts to reduce the risk of wildfires, especially through the use of prescribed burning.”

Prescribed burning is the practice of setting fires in forests or grasslands under well-defined and strategically planned conditions to achieve land management objectives. In addition to reducing the presence of wildland fire fuels, prescribed burning improves habitat for plants and animals, reduces the presence of damaging insects and ticks, and recycles nutrients into the soil.

Most of the Forest Fire Service’s burns in 2024 will occur on state-owned property such as state forests, parks and wildlife management areas, but the Forest Fire Service also assists private landowners, nonprofit organizations, as well as county and municipal governments to meet their management objectives through prescribed burning. Landowners interested in the Forest Fire Service’s assistance in conducting a prescribed burn on their property may contact their local Forest Fire Service office.

Last year, the Forest Fire Service completed prescribed burns on 21,407 acres — 14,004 acres of state-owned lands and 7,403 acres of privately owned property.

Several climatological and environmental conditions, all of which influence a fire’s intensity and severity, are considered when conducting prescribed burns to accomplish various resource and ecological objectives, such as reducing hazard fuels and managing habitats. The Forest Fire Service and DEP’s Air Quality Regulation and Planning office work together to assess current and predicted air quality to determine the best days to conduct prescribed burning, to minimize air quality impacts. Other factors considered include the density and arrangement of the vegetation being burned. Current air quality information can be found here.

While most prescribed burning takes place during the spring, a prescribed burn may be implemented in the summer or fall depending on the management objective for a particular area. The Prescribed Burn Act authorized the Forest Fire Service to use prescribed burning as a tool to meet a wider range of management objectives designed to improve forest health and conditions for plants and animals. For example, prescribed burning can be effective in managing the spread of nonnative invasive species or managing grasslands for threatened or endangered bird species.

Most prescribed burning takes place throughout the New Jersey Pinelands, an ecosystem which needs fire to thrive. Pitch pine, the dominant species of pine in New Jersey, have serotinous cones, which means they remain closed until exposed to high heat from fire, at which point they release their seeds. Additionally, pitch pine trees can sprout new growth from their roots or stump, allowing them to quickly recover and colonize a burned area.

Motorists are reminded to use caution when approaching areas where prescribed burns are taking place, pay attention to reduced speed limits and be alert to the presence of Forest Fire Service vehicles, equipment and personnel that may be working alongside roadways.

New Jerseyans are reminded that peak wildfire season often directly follows prescribed burn season. When in doubt about the source of smoke or whether a fire is part of a prescribed burning operation, call 1-877-WARN-DEP (1-877-927-6337) or 911.

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