New Jersey, USA — The start of the forest fire season is just about two weeks away, but due to budget constraints the state Forest Fire Service will head into that season without approximately 20 percent of its recommended workforce.
Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed Thursday that about 20 percent of the Forest Fire Service’s full-time staff positions are currently unfilled.
“I think it’s a combination of reasons,” Makatura said. “But this is not the direct result of the recent budget address.”
The state’s forest fire season begins March 15, but Makatura said it was still too early predict if staffing levels would return to normal by that time, or even by next year.
“The budget is a moving target,” she said. “Nothing has been approved yet.”
State Fire Warden Maris Gabliks said one of the positions that is not filled is the section fire warden who is in charge of the area in Burlington and Ocean counties that was devastated by a May wildfire that damaged over 17,000 acres.
The person who held that position during the May fire has since retired, Gabliks said.
Gabliks said he couldn’t comment on the staffing shortage, other than to say, “When we submit our budget, we ask to fill vacancies that exist. Whatever we get back we will use to the best of our ability,” Gabliks said.
Makatura claimed the shortage would not put the state at risk.
“We’ve had fluctuating staffing levels for decades, but we haven’t really experienced any problem fighting fires at all,” she said. “In fact, we’re regularly called on to assist with fires in other states, regardless of our staffing levels.”
As in many other service areas that are currently understaffed, Makatura said the Forest Fire Service would learn how to adjust without its full workforce.
“New Jersey has some of the most highly trained forest-fire professionals in the nation. They will adjust their patrol areas and shifts as needed,” she said. “And we have plenty of highly trained part-time firefighters who are ready to respond to any forest fire emergency at any time, day or night.”
According to Gabliks, the Forest Fire Service protects approximately three million acres of pinelands, and every year there are, on average, 1,600 wildfires of varying sizes in the state. Of that total, Gabliks said, about 600 occur in the pinelands.