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State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
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NJ DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION NEWS RELEASE
RELEASE: 7/21/98
98/98
CONTACT: Sharon A. Southard or Amy Collings
(609) 984-1795 or (609) 292-2994

NJ FIREFIGHTERS RETURN HOME FROM FLORIDA WILDFIRES

Thirty-one New Jersey firefighters who were sent to battle the series of wildfires that burned nearly half a million acres of wood lands and residential areas in Florida returned home today, announced State Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Shinn.

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service crews were requested to assist Florida firefighters on July 2 through an inter-state agreement between Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. The federal government will reimburse the state for all the costs associated with the effort. This was the first time that the state had sent firefighters to Florida under the interstate agreement.

Of the 39 firefighters that served, 11 were from South Jersey, 11 from Central Jersey and nine from North Jersey. They arrived today at Philadelphia International Airport. Earlier, eight firefighters returned home.

One New Jersey firefighter received injuries. Sean Morgart, 28, from Burlington County injured his foot and is currently undergoing medical treatment.

More than 2,200 wildfires burned nearly half a million acres of Florida's land since Memorial Day. Approximately 126 homes, and 25 businesses were destroyed, and 179 firefighters suffered injuries.

"We're grateful for the safe return of our firefighters who answered the call and traveled South to battle these blazes. Their dedication and bravery is to be commended. It's through this type of interagency support that everyone in the nation benefits. We're also thankful to the State Forest Fire Service for keeping their staff trained in the latest forest fire suppression methods and assuring that we will be assisted in similar incidents," Shinn said.

Since January, more than 860 wildfires have burned 817 acres in New Jersey. With temperatures approaching triple digits this week, Shinn stressed the need for residents to take steps to avert wildfires.

DEP's State Fire Warden David Harrison said a survey of the state indicates that Central and South Jersey are experiencing dry conditions, although an advisory for recreational fires has not been issued yet.

Shinn noted that the Pine Barrens are extremely susceptible to wildfires and dry out in one or two days. He said the occurrence of wildfires is a largely preventable problem with nine out of 10 fires being attributed to either human carelessness or intentional acts.

"With an ounce of prevention these losses can be prevented," Shinn said.

Shinn issued the following guidelines to reduce the risk of fires and chance ignitions:

  • Use ash trays in vehicles. Discarding cigarettes, matches and smoking material is a violation of state law.
  • Clean up around homes in forested areas. Remove flammable material.
  • Maintain a firebreak of at least 30 feet around forest homes.
  • Report suspicious vehicles and individuals. Arson is a major cause of forest fires in the state.
  • Drown campfires, obtain necessary permits, and don't leave fires unattended.
  • Keep matches away from children and explain the dangers of fire.
  • Check with local fire officials about open burning restrictions.

Governor Whitman in June 1997 signed into law a bill that increases the penalties for anyone who deliberately starts a wildfire or causes an explosion that maims or injures any emergency services personnel. Under the bill, any person who purposely starts a fire or causes an explosion which results in bodily injury to any emergency service personnel commits the crime of aggravated assault as well as arson. The penalty for the crime will be based upon the severity of the victim's injuries.

The New Jersey Forest Service, part of DEP's Division of Parks and Forestry, is responsible for protecting 3.15 million acres of New Jersey open space from wildfires. In 1995, they were honored by the U.S. Forest Service for assistance during the 1994 fire season-one of the worst-in the west.

The Forest Fire Service also provides training to volunteer fire companies in basic wildlife suppression and interface tactics under two federal programs-the Rural Community Fire Protection Program and the Federal Excess Property Program. Both of these programs are administered under cooperative mutual aid agreements. The service maintains cooperative agreements with other state agencies, military installations, the National Park Service and the Middle Atlantic Forest Fire Protection compact for mutual assistance during wildfire emergencies.

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