New growth is already sprouting after a massive forest fire in the Pinelands. Why engraving can be good if done right.

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Bright green shrubs emerge from half-blackened trees across thousands of acres of Wharton State Forest just over a month after one of the largest wildfires in New Jersey history swept through is spread in the region.

Bill Zipse, a New Jersey Forest Service supervising forester, wades through the sugary sand of the Pine Barrens, out of the way and into brush Tuesday morning.

Zipse, pointing to the pitch pine in front of him, isn’t surprised by the resilience of the forest.

Wildfires are not only common, but necessary for areas like this in the Garden State. The authorities even set them off intentionally during prescribed burns. But the latest blaze, dubbed the “Mullica River Fire,” has broken records and, like all forest fires, is extremely unpredictable. With the Wharton State Forest already showing signs of recovery, forestry officials say wildfire seasons are getting longer and harder to predict, forcing them to find ways to deal with it. face.

“It is a species adapted to fire. It has a number of adaptations that allow it to react to a wildfire,” Zipse said, noting the green growing on the sides of the tree. “There are relatively few plant species capable of doing this.”

An illegal campfire sparked the blaze, which began June 19 and has grown to 13,500 acres and burned most intensely in Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica townships, officials told NJ Advance Media.

It was the state’s largest wildfire in 15 years and the 17th since records were kept in the early 1900s, authorities said.

Estimates show it cost over a million dollars to fight the blaze and an investigation is underway to locate the person or group who abandoned the campfire that started it over the weekend Father’s Day, according to John Cecil, assistant commissioner of parks, forests and historic sites. .

Bill Zipse, a New Jersey Forest Service supervising forester, shows new growth sprouting on a pine tree following the June wildfire that scorched more than 13,000 acres in the Wharton State Forest on Tuesday, 26 July 2022.Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

Mullica River Campground and Lower Forge Campground, where about 50 people were staying, were evacuated. No one was injured or killed in the blaze, officials noted.

While there is always a risk to people, animals and property during wildfires, officials said fires in densely forested areas also have a purpose.

“Natural ecosystems are used to having periodic fires as part of the normal type of succession and regeneration,” said Greg Pope, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Montclair State University.

In New Jersey, an average of 1,500 wildfires damage or destroy about 7,000 acres of forest each year — historically between March and May, New Jersey officials said.

“People think wildfires are mostly a Western thing, but it’s also happening here in the East, and we have these fire-adapted ecosystems,” Cecil said.

The “big caveat,” Pope noted, is the unknown path of wildfires. So while the fires themselves can have a positive impact on New Jersey’s forests, the key is controlling them.

“If it was its own big ecosystem there with no people, it could do its own thing,” Pope said. “But people live in and around it…what were once summer cabins 40, 50 years ago are now permanent residences.”

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Controlled burning and climate change

Without a fire in 50 years, the trees would overcrowd swathes of Wharton State Forest, they would need more water even as the summers got drier, and eventually become unable to produce important resin that wards off attack. insect species like bark beetles, Zipse said. .

“Wildfires would also become much more intense if they moved into these areas because the density would be so high,” Zipse said. “These trees would really be competing for water and resources, for minerals and nutrients. Also much of the understory vegetation here which is home to a number of rare butterfly species and rare insect species, which would be shaded and you would see much, much less.

“Some of these rare and unique features that you see in our pine forests would start to disappear,” he added.

This is where prescribed burns come in.

Gregory McLaughlin, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Department, and Cecil, assistant commissioner of state parks, forests and historic sites, said Tuesday the goal was to prescribe burning about 25,000 acres of forest each year. in New Jersey. For the past two years, the agency has hit below that mark — over 17,000 acres in 2021 and over 16,000 acres in 2022 so far — due to weather and having less staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said. .

McLaughlin noted that, like other industries and agencies, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service has faced staffing shortages throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, wildfires are happening more often and are less predictable in part because of climate change, which has led to drier conditions and less rain overall, he said.

Historically, the week of April 25 was the “busiest” part of the season with the biggest wildfires, McLaughlin said.

“But now we see fires happening in February. We see fires occurring in early March. We see fires happening in June and July,” he said. “So the seasonality of fires here and across the country has changed dramatically.”

To combat the recent wildfire, forestry officials said they used a variety of tactics, including controlled burns that can create barriers to slow wildfires and using “fuel cuts” – strips or vegetation blocks or other materials used to deflect fires or protect certain areas. . In the case of Wharton State Forest, one such proactive measure was an 8 km stretch of road cut into the landscape, known as the Washington Turnpike Project.

This prevented the Mullica River Fire from spreading and possibly impacting nearby homes on forest land, said Division Forest Fire Warden Shawn Judy.

“We are certainly concerned about climate change and we are certainly looking at strategies for the future and doing more things like (the Washington Turnpike project) to deal with what we see happening in the seasonality of the fires,” said McLaughlin.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in an April 2021 report that data from the National Interagency Fire Center indicates that the 10 years with the largest area burned by wildfires in the country have all occurred. since 2004.

“Several studies have shown that climate change has already led to an increase in the length of the wildfire season, the frequency of wildfires and the area burned,” reads an excerpt from the report. “The wildfire season has lengthened in many areas due to factors such as warmer springs, longer summer dry seasons, and drier soils and vegetation.”

A spokesperson for DEP State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites said the majority of wildfires are human-caused. New Jersey wildfire officials have recommended park visitors make sure they set up camp in legal campgrounds and that during construction fires contact forest services, which can help examine best practices.

Wharton State Forest sprouts new growth after a recent wildfire, July 26, 2022

New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin speaks about the importance of prescribed burns in the Wharton State Forest, Tuesday, July 26, 2022.Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

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Steven Rodas can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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