Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Photo file: A major fire occurred in Lakewood in mid-May 2021

As the forest fire season approaches, New Jersey fire officials said they burned less combustible material from state forests than they expected, which increases the possibility of fires as climate change warms and dries up forests.

The annual state program of planned burning, which is designed to reduce the amount of fuel available for forest fires, covered in 2022 only 1998 acres. That’s much less than the 25,000-acre target each year, said Greg McLaughlin, head of state forestry. fire service, speaking to reporters Thursday.

In 2021, officials carried out 627 burns on an area of ​​17,940 acres, but this year made only 149 burns less than 2,000 acres. “Obviously, we still lack our target of 25,000 acres,” McLaughlin said.

Last year in New Jersey there were nearly 1,000 forest fires that damaged 1,972 acres. Despite the state’s known population density, 40% of its land is covered by forests, and about half of its homes are at the so-called junction between residential and forest areas.

“Forest fires are more of a threat than we can easily recognize,” said Sean Laturet, commissioner of the Department of the Environment. “It’s important to be aware of the risks we face from constantly warming.”

Dangerous dry season

Every year the service burns natural material on the ground to remove fuel for forest fires, which usually peak in April, when fuel, such as dead leaves and needles, is driest because humidity is low and the ground is not yet shaded by new growth on trees. .

The combustion program is determined by the weather; when the temperature rises above 60 degrees and the humidity starts to rise, the Forest Service completes the program and begins to fight forest fires, McLaughlin said.

“This is a push for us to say that we are going to stop the prescribed burning and move to the season of forest fires,” he explained to reporters.

DEP spokeswoman Karin Shinske said the relatively small number of prescribed burns this year reflects weather conditions that limited the number of consecutive days when burns were possible.

One is the cost of climate change

Efforts to stop forest fires are on the back of predictions that they will become more common as temperatures and droughts change with climate change, Laturet said.

He echoed a warning issued in the state report for 2020 on the scientific basis of climate change that the periods between rains will be longer, creating drier conditions for fires. An increased risk of forest fires will also reflect higher temperatures and reduced water availability, the report said.

“From our scientific report on climate change, you will see that we predict an increased risk of forest fires,” Laturet said.

However, the number of forest fires has declined over the past few years, perhaps because people – who cause virtually all forest fires – were less mobile during the pandemic, or because of prevention and education efforts, McLaughlin said.

He added that the exact cause of the decline was not clearly identified, but said the annual number had dropped to about 1,000 compared to the previous average of about 1,500.

This year there were 88 fires, most of them small, more than 67 hectares. If there is a drought in the summer, the peak of the forest fire season in April will also continue until the summer, McLaughlin said.

The change in weather has caused a “shift in seasonality,” he said. While the forest fire season usually lasts from late March to early May, in mid-May last year there was a major forest fire in Lakewood.

“These wide-ranging climate fluctuations are making things happen differently in the natural world,” McLaughlin said. “Our risk is exacerbated by the fact that we have a lot of people here.”

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