WHEREAS, a large proportion of New Jersey’s farms contain woodlands that are an integral part of the farms, both for the production of forestry products and indirect benefits such as providing buffer areas and watershed protection; and
WHEREAS, forestry and forest product are an important part of New Jersey’s agricultural industry; and
WHEREAS, many of New Jersey’s farms are located in areas that are highly susceptible to wildfires or in wild land urban interface areas where the risk of loss of property and human life due to wildfires is greatest; and
WHEREAS, the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service is the farm community’s first line of defense and greatest protection against possible catastrophic loss due to wildfires; and
WHEREAS, the Forest Fire Service is currently severely understaffed for its purpose of providing the necessary protection against wildfire risk to both human life and property in New Jersey.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the delegates to the 95th State Agricultural Convention, assembled in East Brunswick, New Jersey, on February 9, 2010, do hereby acknowledge and express our appreciation for the valuable role that the New Jersey Forest Fire Service plays in preventing and protecting us and our property from wildfires in New Jersey.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we urge the Governor and the Legislature to restore Forest Fire Service funding and staffing to levels sufficient to provide wildfire prevention and protection to the agricultural community, as well as to all the citizens of New Jersey who live, work and have property in areas at risk from wildfire.
Twenty-one critical full time positions in the New Jersey Forest Fire Service are currently vacant, resulting in reduced public-safety service capacity for the protection of life, property and natural resources from wildfire. Current statewide Forest Fire Service staffing is at 76 percent. Of the current reduced staffing of 68 positions, 30 have over 20 years of service (20 to 35 years) and 12 are eligible to currently retire or have announced retirement dates.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service is the state agency responsible for protecting life, property and natural resources from wildfire, as mandated by N.J.S.A. Title 13, the Forest Fire Laws. This area of protection encompasses over 3.2 million acres of land consisting of the rural and suburban portions of New Jersey. The Forest Fire Service has a full-time staff of 89 permanent positions (currently at 68) and a part-time staff of over 2,500 wild land firefighters that are paid hourly as required for emergency fire suppression and fire-protection duties.
On average, the Forest Fire Service responds to and controls 1,600 wildfires annually across New Jersey. The number and severity of these wildfires is directly related to weather, fuels, human risk and the effectiveness of a forest fire control organization. The total effectiveness of the organization depends primarily on two major factors: personnel and mechanized equipment.
The Forest Fire Service relies on a network of 21 lookout towers that provide quick detection of all wildfires, and a fleet of over 400 pieces of equipment that includes specially armored off-road wild land engines and bulldozers with plow units, as well as observation and drop helicopters that can be dispatched to all reported wildfires expediently. During the spring fire season, an additional fleet of single-engine air tankers are contracted to supplement the aerial firefighting force.
In addition to fire suppression, the Forest Fire Service must perform numerous other duties, including the investigation of wildfire causes and the enforcement of N.J.S.A. Title 13, the training of Forest Fire Service firefighters as well as other emergency responders across New Jersey, fire prevention and homeowner education through the use of the national Smokey Bear and Firewise educational programs, as well as various aspects of wild land fire protection preparedness.
The implementation of the state’s fuels management program is a highly labor-intensive process that includes the planning for and execution of a prescribed burning program that treats over 15,000 acres annually. The Service is also responsible for the maintenance of hundreds of miles of firelines, firebreaks, and fuelbreaks across New Jersey. This process reduces the severity of wildfires and allows for the quicker response to, containment and control of fires that occur in some of the highest hazard areas of the state.
New Jersey’s unique geographical and economic positions make it an optimum place to work and live. The state has over 8.7 million residents in its 8,721 square-mile area, making New Jersey the most densely populated state in the nation. Over 50 percent of the state is currently forested, with developed areas and individual residences increasingly spreading into forested regions. The spread of urbanization into forested regions is known as the wild land-urban interface and is defined as the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wild lands or vegetative fuel. These resulting wild land-urban interface areas pose significant challenges to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service in providing forest fire protection.
Most people across the United States equate wild land-urban interface fires with the western portion of the nation, but the potential for significant wildfire activity that threatens human lives and improved property is a reality in New Jersey. Across New Jersey, any person who lives in a wild land-urban interface area is at risk of being threatened or impacted by a wildfire. Some portions of New Jersey, such as the Pinelands National Reserve and surrounding Pine Barrens region, are more susceptible to serious wildfire occurrences than other areas based upon their volatile forest fuels, topographic features, weather patterns and the prevalence of the wild land-urban interface encountered there.
In May 2007, New Jersey experienced a serious wildfire conflagration which burned over 15,550 acres of forest, destroyed 3 homes, damaged 25 homes, closed major transportation networks, injured several firefighters and local residents and caused the evacuation of thousands of residents from southern Ocean County. During the course of containing and controlling the Warren Grove Wildfire, over 9,000 homes were threatened at one point or another by the growth of the fire. This wildfire occurred in the Pine Barrens area known as the East Plains, which is considered one of the most volatile vegetation types in the nation.
Forest Fire Service resources and full-time employees from across the state were mobilized and assigned to aggressively and safely confront the fire over a 48-hour period until the fire was contained while still providing fire protection and public safety services to the remainder of New Jersey. Manpower and equipment were mobilized from High Point to Cape May. The wildfire was not considered 100-percent under control for an additional 20 days with constant monitoring by firefighters and specialized equipment. Luckily, only one major wildfire occurred in New Jersey on that day and the overall efforts of the Forest Fire Service did not have to be diverted to any additional emerging incidents. Historically, when conditions occur that promote large fire growth, the state has experienced several major and complex wildfires concurrently.
The full-time work force needs adequate staffing to be able to safely operate the overall firefighting organization across the geographical features and ever increasing wild land-urban interface areas from the Pine Barrens to the Highlands.
The stage is currently set for the possibility of a series of major catastrophic wildfires (both large and small due to high fire occurrence) in New Jersey based on the presence of hazardous wild land fuels, the continued development of homes and improved property into expanding wild land-urban interface areas and the historical potential for human-caused wildfires. The impact of urbanization is clearly demonstrated in that 99 percent of all wildfires occurring in New Jersey are caused by human activity, either intentionally or accidentally.
Funding needs to be provided to fill critical positions that are vacant. These critical positions include frontline firefighters and managers, as well as integral support positions that detect wildfires, provide dispatch and communications, and keep the firefighting vehicles and specialized equipment operational. All vacant positions are an integral part of the overall statewide forest fire suppression and protection program that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Continued reduced staffing levels present firefighter safety issues and may cause firefighters to take unnecessary risks while protecting life, property and natural resources. The safety of our firefighters must continue to be our primary priority in confronting wildfires.
In 1998, The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) was mandated by Congress to create a Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. A report released by NIOSH in 2008, which investigated 372 firefighter fatalities nationwide between 1998 and 2005, identified 10 recommendations for preventing firefighter fatalities. Of these, providing adequate staffing was identified as a key factor in preventing firefighter fatalities.
Currently there are 21 vacancies out of 89 positions allocated to the Forest Fire Service. The current staffing level is at an unacceptable 76 percent for providing these critical public safety services. One of our most recent retirements was of the Section Fire Warden who served as the Warren Grove Wildfire Incident Commander, who retired after 30 years of service, leaving this critical vacancy in an extremely hazardous portion of the Pine Barrens. These retirements not only reduce our capability to respond to emergencies, but also remove valuable experience that requires several years to replace. The vacant positions are broken out below by geographical division and program responsibilities:
Division A (Northern New Jersey – Highlands and Skylands Areas)
(1) Assistant Division Forest Fire Warden (key leadership position overseeing field operations, law enforcement, training, prevention – supervises 8 Section Forest Fire Wardens).
(3) Section Forest Fire Wardens (field fire managers that oversee an administrative section, overseeing all aspects of fire management and fire protection – 597,000 acres are currently lacking oversight).
(1) Customer Service Representative (assists in the administration of a division headquarters and interacts with the general public for an eight-county area with fire prevention, information and permitting).
(2) Forest Fire Observers (provide fire detection duties at Ramapo and Budd Lake Fire Lookout Towers – 628 square miles are currently lacking early wildfire detection).
(1) Forest Fire Equipment Maintenance Specialist 1 (responsible for the maintenance and construction of forest firefighting vehicles and specialized equipment, supports firefighting activities).
Division B (Central New Jersey – core of the Pinelands National Reserve)
(2) Forest Fire Observers (provide fire detection duties at Jamesburg and Apple Pie Fire Lookout Towers – 628 square miles are currently lacking early wildfire detection).
(2) Section Forest Fire Warden (field fire manager who oversees an administrative section, overseeing all aspects of fire management and protection – 229,000 acres are currently lacking oversight).
Division C (Southern New Jersey – Pinelands Region)
(1) Assistant Division Forest Fire Warden (key leadership position overseeing field operations, law enforcement, training, prevention – supervises 11 Section Forest Fire Wardens).
(1) Supervisor of Forest Fire Equipment Maintenance (supervises the operation of the division shop and oversight of the maintenance and construction of fire vehicles and specialized equipment).
(2) Section Forest Fire Wardens (field fire managers that oversee an administrative section, overseeing all aspects of fire management and fire protection – 259,000 acres are currently lacking oversight).
(2) Forest Fire Observers (provide fire detection duties at Millville and McKeetown Fire Lookout Towers – 628 square miles are currently lacking early wildfire detection).
State Headquarters/Aviation & FEPP Program/Equipment Research and Development
(1) Forest Fire Equipment Maintenance Specialist (assigned to the daily operation of the Federal Excess Personal Property program (FEPP program) –current New Jersey inventory is over $21 million of supplies, equipment and vehicles on loan to New Jersey).
(1) Intermittent Forest Fire Equipment Maintenance Specialist (assigned to the R&D shop for the construction and fabrication of specialized firefighting equipment and vehicles, supports firefighting).
(1) Division Forest Fire Warden (key leadership position overseeing the statewide hazard reduction, fireline payroll, contract aviation, weather, District Fire Warden, and fire planning programs).