USA– Every few days this spring, another small wildfire breaks out in the Pinelands, a 1.1-million-acre tract in southern New Jersey that spans seven counties and is home to some 500,000 people. So far this year, firefighters have doused the flames before they caused any significant, or at least widespread, damage. One fire turned four mobile homes to ash. Another closed the Garden State Parkway for a few hours. But Jersey won’t always be so lucky.
If the conditions are right, experts predict that on a dry morning in late April or May the height of wildfire season in the reserve the dense forest between Philadelphia and Atlantic City could explode into an inferno that moves as fast as any out West. In a worst-case scenario, the fire might start just east of, say, the 7,000-person town of Tabernacle. Flames fueled by pine needles and 40-mile-an-hour winds will crawl within minutes from the forest floor to the crowns, growing from 20 to 30 to 70 feet tall as they leap between trees and over sandy roads. Between Tabernacle and the Atlantic Ocean are 30 miles of thick woodlands interspersed with a dozen retirement communities, a military base and a nuclear generator. If it is Memorial Day, there will also be thousands of vacationers. When Shawn Viscardi, the heavyset volunteer fire chief for Chatsworth an 800-person village in the reserve hears the first smoke report on the radio, he’ll pray the fire isn’t already too far gone.
“Anything that comes outta the west with a good head of steam on it, we’re not going to stop it,” Viscardi tells me in his fire-station office, staring at a map of the Pinelands. “We just can’t.”
Viscardi might think of the hikers on the 50-mile Batona Trail that cuts between Chatsworth and Tabernacle, but he’ll dismiss the thought. They can’t be helped. Instead, he’ll warn the residents of Panama Road, a 100-home subdivision sunk deep into the Pines, to evacuate immediately. With only one road in and out, firefighters will almost certainly be unable to protect them or many other Pinelands homes. Two hours after ignition, gusts will loft embers two miles ahead of the main blaze, lighting pines where they land. Should they blow east toward Chatsworth’s Ocean Spray cranberry warehouse, they will incinerate the 50,000 wooden crates stacked outside the building, generating enough heat and embers to combust a block of homes across the street. Over the next few days, if the winds keep blowing, flames could kill hundreds and lay waste to several billion dollars in property.
Although wildfires in the American West dominate headlines, the single most destructive fire in U.S. history could occur in the Northeast. New Jersey’s Pinelands (also known as the Pine Barrens) is the lone island of contiguous forest in the 45-million-person megacity that comprises the Eastern Seaboard from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston the densest population cluster in the country. Whereas regular fires used to thin out the Pinelands, large swaths have remained relatively untouched for decades due to strict preservation laws. The result is a giant tinderbox of untended woods that’s surrounded by 100,000-person suburbs. A Wildfire Risk Assessment published by New Jersey compared the Pinelands to “an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey.” Wildfires
The last bad Pinelands blaze was in 1963. On a day now known as Black Saturday, an estimated 37 human-sparked fires ran through some 190,000 acres from Long Beach Island to Atlantic City, killing seven and destroying 400 buildings. (Humans are the cause behind 99 percent of blazes in Jersey.) In John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens, the author said about the 1963 fire, “The damage to buildings was light, but only because there were so few buildings to damage.” Since then, the population in the Pinelands has tripled while the forest has become even thicker. If a series of blazes starts on the right dry and windy day, it could take out a large chunk of the Jersey coastline. Yet despite the increasing danger, state officials can’t do much to counter it. One significant fire, let alone 37, could tap out their current response capabilities.
Four hours after starting, 4,000 acres of the Pinelands will be ablaze. As the fire gathers momentum, most of New Jersey’s 1,200 part- and full-time firefighters will race toward the smoke from across the state; so will volunteers from the neighboring counties. But the gale-force winds that give rise to the fire will also ground the state’s single-engine air tankers and 60-year-old helicopters. Some units will try to protect the houses they can reach; others are likely to make a stand on Route 72 and attack the main blaze by lighting backfires intentionally burning the forest to rob the fire of fuel. Their efforts may steer the flames away from the mental-health facilities at New Lisbon Developmental Center to the north or spare the community of Presidential Lakes, but not everybody will be saved. Six hours after the fire starts, the houses packed into the forest on Panama Road will likely be ash in the mile-wide head of flames that will have leapfrogged nine miles to the east. Residents in Keswick Grove will evacuate. So will the retirees at Pine Ridge and the staff at Ocean County Airport. Emergency managers will shut down the Garden State Parkway.
Fire behavior is difficult to predict, but if a blaze of Black Saturday’s intensity struck today, it’s hard to imagine the state escaping with only a small number of deaths and minor property damage. In 2016, a catastrophic wildfire like the 1963 inferno could have exponentially more severe consequences. “Sooner or later, southern New Jersey will know the fire equivalent of Hurricane Sandy,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire-ecology professor at Arizona State University. “The cost could be in the billions. The loss of life could be unthinkable.”
In my early twenties, I fought wildfires for five seasons throughout the West, barely registering that the East was even flammable. But last year, I heard Pyne the world’s foremost fire expert talk about the potential disaster in the Pinelands. Nothing, he said, would wake the public like a megafire so close to Manhattan that the smoke would sting New Yorkers’ eyes. The claim sounded outrageous. In fact, I remained skeptical until I recently saw the Pinelands for myself.
In the West, fire season gets rolling in Arizona and New Mexico in late May. Over the summer, it often extends north through Colorado and Montana and west through Oregon, Washington and California before ending with a flash when the Santa Ana winds rake flames over San Diego and L.A. in the fall. Fire season tends to begin earlier each year, and large parts of the West are now two degrees warmer than in 1895 and are predicted to get another four to six degrees hotter by century’s end. Warmer temps are one reason Western firefighters quip that their once-seasonal job is now year-round. Thicker forests are another.
In wildland firefighting, success does not breed success. Stopping fires in their infancy allows forests to grow thicker and more at risk of bad blazes. Before the Forest Service started fighting fires, around 1910, lightning strikes and native peoples used to burn around 50 million Western acres each year. Today, some 30,000 wildland firefighters and their equipment smokejumpers, fire engines, air tankers check that number at around 11 million. If that sounds impressive, it’s worth noting that 50 years ago about a third as many firefighters kept the annual acreage burned to roughly half what it is today. The flames have become that much harder to control. In 2011, one blaze outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, laid waste to roughly an acre of giant pine trees per second for the first 13 hours. The flames were several hundred feet tall I watched them from my home in Santa Fe. With more than 140 million Americans living in places that could burn like it, and 840,000 more moving westward each year, it was also a terrifying reminder of what could happen if a megafire hit a town or a city.