The Very Real Wildfire Threat in New Jersey

Editor's Note: In an exhaustive feature in Rolling Stone, Kyle Dickman reports on the threat of wildfire in Southern New Jersey. Here, we take a close look at New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

Every summer, Americans steel themselves for an increasingly worse wildfire season, as dry brush in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and other western states catches fire and spreads from forests toward suburban towns and larger cities. While residents of the East Coast face their own natural disasters, they can at least rest assured that they don’t have to fear fires emerging from the woods and spreading into their homes. Until now: If you live near the Pine Barrens, a million-acre section of southern New Jersey full of dead forest and half a million residents, risk of wild fire looms more prominently than ever. Under the right conditions, it looks like some day in the future, a wildfire that breaks out in the Barrens could devastate the entire area, killing thousands and causing billions in property damage, according to the new Rolling Stone story.

The good news, if there is any, is that a fire on the level of the one being predicted will only come about if a perfect set of circumstances align. The bad news is that among the people interviewed for the story, the view is that most of the conditions for what a fire ecology professor calls “the fire equivalent of Hurricane Sandy” are basically already set. The forests of the Pine Barrens have been left alone, untended for years, which has left plenty of fuel for a wildfire. Rolling Stone reported that the state of New Jersey compared the untouched growth to “an inch of gasoline” covering the south and central areas of the state according to a Wildfire Risk Assessment they published.

The only other nudge the Pine Barrens would need to ignite massive burning are a drought leading into the fire season (typically in the spring) combined with a weather system that brings in high winds. While small wildfires burn in the area every year, only two since 1905 have grown so out of control that they burned more than 150,000 acres. And although the last of those was in 1963, a fire known as Black Saturday that burned almost 200,000 acres from Long Beach Island to Atlantic City, the danger of a new fire is that development in the Pine Barrens has only increased since that fire. The population living in the Pine Barrens has tripled since the 1963 fire, which killed seven people and destroyed 400 buildings.

A new fire of Black Saturday magnitude could cause billions of dollars in property damage, kill thousands of people, and leave New Jersey’s overwhelmed firefighters having to choose which areas and people to save and which areas to let burn, a choice that western smokejumpers and wildfire response teams are used to making.

As of right now, the conditions for the perfect firestorm are there, but can be at least somewhat mitigated if action is taken soon. Residents and advocates for the area are hoping that conservation rules can be somehow relaxed so that more parts of the forest, which have been untouched for years, can be cleared and thinned, which would reduce the amount of fuel for a future fire. Other scientists have suggested fires can be slowed and damage limited if towns in the Pine Barrens build firebreaks, which strip an area of vegetation and undergrowth and therefore rob a fire of fuel. However the issue is handled, if it’s not, experts warn that it’s just a matter of when and not if New Jersey will wind up with a wildfire so large that the smoke from it can be smelled on the streets of Manhattan.