A massive wildfire broke out in Wharton State Forest on June 19. The Mullica River Fire (named for the river near it) ultimately burned about 15,000 acres, making it one of the biggest wildfires in state history. Firefighters got it 95% contained within a couple days, just in time for another wildfire to break out on June 26 in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, which overtook 316 acres.
In just two weeks, firefighters responded to four big wildfires throughout the state—the two mentioned above, plus another in Wharton State Forest (98 acres) and one in Edison (59 acres). Before all that, on May 1, firefighters put out another wildfire (63 acres) in Evesham Township. In all, there have been 666 wildfires in the state so far this year.
Wildfires aren’t new in New Jersey—there’s roughly 1,500 per year, and the Forest Service has 21 fire stations spread throughout the state to monitor signs of early fires. However, the intensity, duration and date on which they occur has changed in recent years, a discomfiting shift for the state’s fire fighters, which may portend more volatile fire seasons in the future.
“We’re setting records for different things, temperature or rainfall or dryness. To me, that unpredictability and that widespread change is attributable to the climate change phenomenon that’s going on,” says NJ Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin. “I think nature’s confused. Nature doesn’t know how to respond.”
April is typically the heaviest fire season in New Jersey—before trees get their leaves, all the brush and pine needles underneath are exposed to a sun that’s getting warm and which stays up longer. As the season shifts into summer, trees get their leaves and shade over the “fine fuels” of brush and other (essentially) kindling, while also helping them retain moisture. The Fire Service also conducts controlled burns in the winter months, when the weather is a little calmer, to prevent potential future fire spread.
“Any fire that’s going to start in the summer season, it’s going to take a lot more energy, a lot more heat to burn off that moisture in those leaves for that fire to actually get going and move from the ground field,” McLaughlin says. If they do, they’ll catch the “ladder fuels” of shrubs onto the treetops, where it becomes a “crown fire” and spreads from treetop to treetop.
So if it requires more effort for a fire to spread in summer, then how come several big fires have sparked in late June and July this year? McLaughlin can’t get into specifics due to ongoing investigations but he doesn’t think the South Jersey “fires are connected to each other,” and at least one was accidental—potentially sparked by an illegal and improperly snuffed-out campfire. But investigators with both the fire service and the county are looking into potential arson.
Of course, we learn from a young age about the danger of forest fires, and given that 99% of them are human-caused, it’s true that only us, indeed, can prevent forest fires. But the bigger issue with the recent spate of wildfires in New Jersey isn’t necessary the people who are setting them, it’s the shift in conditions that have allowed them to get more intense and later in the year.
“If you go back 5-10 years, the predominant number of fires and large major fires were in April. With our record of almost 100 years, we can almost pinpoint the week and the weekend that’s the worst,” McLaughlin says. “What we’re seeing now is major fires in late February, we’re seeing major fires in early March. For whatever reason, this season, we did see some fires in early March, and then April was relatively quiet and sort of different from past years as well, in terms of seasonality. Now we are in a summer fire season that has been, I don’t want to say unprecedented, but it’s definitely not something we’ve had for a number of years.”
The intensity of the fires, too, is alarming, as even some small fires—75% of the state’s fires are under five acres—are acting like major fires (considered fires over 100 acres), McLaughlin says. “That’s something that we’re concerned about and paying attention to as well.”
With more intense fires comes more challenging work for firefighters. In the massive Mullica River Fire, for instance, embers (or what the Fire Service refers to as “firebrands”) shot up and across the Mullica River, which was the firefighters’ natural holding line. The jumping embers created a “difficult situation from a containment standpoint,” McLaughlin says. The embers crossed and ignited patches of forest four miles north and south of the river, which meant firefighters had to travel long distances on non-conventional roads that limit vehicles’ speed.
Add in the hot weather that comes with June and July in New Jersey, firefighters are facing more challenging fires than before.
“It adds to the fatigue of the firefighters. When it’s extremely hot and you’re close to a fire, it’s that much hotter. So there are a lot of safety considerations for firefighters working in these conditions,” McLaughlin says.
Low humidity and wind are the primary factors for wildfire spread, with temperature being a secondary but certainly impactful factor. With low humidity and high heat, the vegetation starts to dry and wilt, making it more susceptible to fire spread. If there’s wind, “then you have all the ingredients for this fire recipe, and no pun intended, that starts to bake.”
About half the state (parts of North and South Jersey) are currently in abnormally dry conditions, and the entire state is under moderate or high fire risk. The state has had deluges of rain followed by periods of drought over the last decade—weather patterns exacerbated by climate change.
McLaughlin, whose other “hobby profession” is farming, has experienced the shift in weather patterns in both his farming and firefighting work.
“I have some first-hand experience and can speak with good confidence that we are seeing these significant, unusual swings, patterns that are dynamic and different and unpredictable, where we either have just massive amounts of rainfall for long periods of time and other natural disasters like hurricane and floods, and then it swings 180 degrees the other way. Three years ago we had the hottest January and February on record,” he says.
Climate change, more broadly, also affects the composition of the forest, making it both more susceptible to wildfire spread and more difficult for firefighters to fight. For instance, in abnormally wet years, more vegetation will grow than normal; in subsequent dry years, that vegetation will die and become fuel for forest fires.
Too, a changing climate has brought pests to the state that historically existed elsewhere, like the Southern pine beetle, which came into forests throughout the northeast, killing flora and changing the landscape of the forests. Or, the emerald ash borer, which recently started devastating trees in Central Jersey. That changes the composition of the forest, McLaughlin says, allowing brush vegetation to thrive without the shade of a canopy, thus making it more difficult for firefighters to predict fire spread and get to wildfires.
“That dynamic could have impacts to fire management,” McLaughlin says. “You look at, how do you now take your specially designed truck that goes in the woods, and it’s one thing to push over or push through vegetation that’s alive, but when you have dead standing trees, they’re extremely dangerous. They’re falling on the truck, they’re breaking windshields. They’re a hazard.”
Plenty of studies confirm the fact that climate change is contributing to increased wildfire across the country, particularly out West. The NJ Forest Fire Service has helped other states fight wildfires throughout much of the West. Currently the Service has three trucks in Texas, but the ongoing fire season in New Jersey has prevented them from sending more help.
Rutgers researchers predict New Jersey can expect earlier heat in the year, and long heat waves. And if the other factors of wildfire creation come with it—low humidity and wind—wildfires might not just be something we hear about occasionally, or on the news. Wildfires, and more powerful ones, might be here to stay.
Fire prevention resources as well as fire updates and personal possession safety tips are available here. Remember, campers: put out your fires completely.