Philadelphia, PA, USA — More than two months after a wildfire charred 17,000 acres of Pinelands in Burlington and Ocean counties near Warren Grove, the forest has sprung back to life.
The vegetation of the Pinelands began to sprout to life again just three weeks after the fire left thousands of acres black and leafless.
Vegetation in the Pinelands forest along Route 539 has gone from charred (left) days after a major forest fire in May, to green with new growth (right) this month in photographs provided by the state Pinelands Commission
Two months after the wildfire, acres of lush green plant life had re-established itself where there was once nothing left.
Areas that looked like a dark and desolate desert of destruction a few days after the fire now look like an ocean of bright green, Paul Leakan, spokesman for the state Pinelands Commission, said yesterday. The forest is regenerating.
A U.S. Air Force investigation report released last week determined that the blaze was sparked by defensive flares dropped below a restricted minimum release altitude by a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 fighter pilot training at the Warren Grove Bombing Range in Bass River.
The May Pinelands fire in the Pinelands burned for six days before it was contained. Four homes were destroyed and 37 were damaged, and two people were injured.
Training at the range has been suspended since the fire as state and military officials debate its future.
While the Pinelands ecology remains dependent on fire to create and maintain habitats for plant and animal species by encouraging germination of specific plants such as the pitch pine, forest fire safety is paramount for the commission and Pinelands municipalities.
Leakan said the 1.1 million-acre Pine-lands is one of the most fire-prone areas of the country.
The commission is stepping up its efforts to improve mitigation of wildfire hazards in those municipalities that face the greatest risk of wildfire.
Commission members met with state Forest Fire Service officials last week to discuss the project, which calls for identifying a series of strategies to implement improved fire-hazard mitigation in at least two of the Pinelands municipalities that face the greatest risk, Leakan said.
The areas most vulnerable to forest fires are known as wildland urban interfaces, which are areas where development meets forest.
The strategy could include creating fuel breaks where none exist and improving and maintaining existing fuel breaks, which are areas of land where vegetation that would serve as fuel for a wildfire has been cleared, creating a buffer between the forest and housing.
According to Pinelands regulations, a fuel break of 75 feet is required around structures located in a high fire-hazard area.
Leakan said the commission hopes to begin the process to identify the criteria for selecting the participating municipalities by late August or early September. Municipalities are likely to be selected based on fire patterns, history and the number of homes in high-risk areas.
A wildfire safety plan for the town could be implemented within a year, Leakan said.
The plan would include recommended strategies to reduce fire-hazard risks, including education, fire service initiatives, identification of evacuation routes, remedial actions for homeowners, identification of municipal zoning modifications and funding to assist the implementation of the plan, Leakan said.
Leakan said the recent wildfire is a major reminder of just how fast and furious Pinelands wildfires can be and how crucial it is for high-risk municipalities to plan and prepare for wildfires.
The state Forest Fire Service has already done controlled burns this year to decrease the risk of wildfires.
In June, the Medford Township Department of Public Safety hosted a countywide forest fire training exercise to practice fire suppression and structural protection in the event of a large-scale forest fire in the area.
An average of 1,500 wildfires damage or destroy 7,000 acres of New Jersey forests per year, according to the state Forest Fire Division’s Web site.