Several times during late winter and early spring, the skies over New Jersey fill with smoke. While this often causes concern for our residents, it is common for them to be informed that the Forest Fire Service is merely conducting a "prescribed burn."
What is a prescribed burn? Technically, a prescribed burn is: "the skillful application of fire under exacting conditions of weather and fuel in a predetermined area, for a specific purpose to achieve specific results."
Since 1928, the Fire Service has used fire as a tool to protect the lives and property of our residents living near the forestlands of New Jersey. We do this by setting fires under exacting conditions to reduce the underbrush (the "fuel" for a fire), in areas that are prone to fire, or that may be located in a position where we feel we can defend against an oncoming wildfire. The use of fire in this way requires a level of skill and competence that we encourage through extensive, ongoing training.
The primary purpose of prescribed burning in New Jersey is to reduce the hazardous accumulations of forest fuels. This aids in the prevention of wildfires, reduces the intensity of the fires, and also provides a foundation for safer, more effective fire suppression and protection operations.
It has proven to be an effective and economical practice in protecting New Jersey's forests and safeguarding the state's residents. While the principle reason for prescribed burning is wildfire hazard reduction, it also has numerous secondary benefits, including:
- Wildlife habitat management
- Site management for forestry activities
- Ecological plant and animal management
- Forest disease and pest control
- Nutrient recycling
- Grassland management
- Improved accessibility
- Enhanced appearances
The History of Prescribed Fire in New Jersey
The Native Americans were the first to introduce prescribed burning to New Jersey's woodlands. Research suggests that the Lenni-Lenape Indians may have used this practice for over 1,000 years. It was used primarily to facilitate travel, improve hunting, drive away insects, and also increase the supplies of browse, nuts and berries.
Early settlers harnessed fire for somewhat different purposes - to clear lands for town sites, homes and agriculture. During the Industrial Revolution, the extensive use of fire to clear land resulted in large, uncontrollable conflagrations that soon threatened life and property. Attitudes began to change and fires were then feared. As early as the 1750s, attempts were made to legally restrict the use of fire and to promote fire protection.
Since the 1920s, cranberry and blueberry growers protected their property by using prescribed fire to remove heavy accumulations of forest fuels from around their fields and buildings. In 1928, prescribed burning practices were utilized to protect state forestlands. Burning was initiated along roadside safety strips. The protection strips were normally between 25 and 200 feet wide. However, after large destructive fires in the 1930s, the practice expanded to include large blocks of woodland. From the 1930s to the '60s, Dr. Silas Little of the U.S. Forest Service, in association with other forestry professionals, conducted research on the practice and effects of prescribed burning. In 1948, the practice of prescribed burning as a fire management tool was introduced to the public; soon after, it expanded to involve both private and public lands.
Prescribed burning is a job requiring knowledge of forest fuels, fire behavior, suppression techniques, local weather conditions, and fires effects. Consequently, a written plan must be developed well in advance of the proposed burn to allow time for review and the preparation of all necessary permits.
Planning considerations include a site map depicting the burn area, objectives and techniques; ranges of preferred weather conditions (wind, temperature, relative humidity); smoke management considerations (developed areas, highways); burning techniques, equipment and manpower needs, emergency suppression procedures, permit requirements and notification procedures. New Jersey's prescribed burning season is limited to the period between October 1 and March 31.
In the spring following the burning season, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service reviews all previous burning projects on state lands and begins formulating plans for the next year. All plans for Division of Parks and Forestry lands are reviewed by a team of natural resource specialists; this technical forest management team provides information regarding other natural resource interests. After their review has been completed, the proposals are made available for public comment. The final documents are completed in time to begin pre-burn preparations.
For prescribed burning for private forestlands, the landowner, a professional forester, or his legally authorized agent must develop a plan. These plans are submitted to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service for review, approval, and permit insurance. The prescribed burns must be completed at the owner's expense. However, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service can provide specialized equipment if the landowner is willing to reimburse the Forest Fire Service for its equipment and operator's wages.
Good preparation is the key to a successful prescribed burn. The following steps should be taken:
Review the plan and conduct a thorough inspection of the burning area.
Note any special considerations within or adjacent to the proposed site. The area must be surrounded by control line free of any flammable material. Streams, lakes, roads, and similar fuel breaks usually make effective lines.
Locate and clean any internal firing lines. These lines can be established with a tractor and fireplow unit. The fireplow cuts a path through the organic material down to the mineral soil. The lines are plowed in the fall after the leaves drop but before the ground freezes. Lines should be oriented in a north-south direction to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds when conducting the burn.
Note: Sites should properly plan and prepare to ensure that the burn is safely controlled and that the fire behavior achieves the desired results.
Executing the Burn
Once the planning and preparation work has been completed, it is necessary to await the proper fuel and weather conditions. In New Jersey, only about 15 optimum burning days occur during the burning season. Once a burning day has been selected, a number of details must be accomplished
- Review current and expected weather conditions
- Inspect conditions at the site
- Notify local authorities
- Brief burning crews
- Ensure readiness of burning and fire suppression equipment
- Set a test fire to confirm burning conditions
If everything is found to be acceptable, the burning crews ignite the control and interior lines in a systematic and progressive procedure to assure that the entire area is burned over in the planned manner. NJ Forest Firewardens utilize drip torches as well as other devices to ignite the lines. A five or six person burning crew may burn 600 to 1,000 acres in a day. The area must be monitored until the fires are secure and will not escape the area.
Prescribed burning in a given area is normally repeated on an interval of 3 to 5 years. Some hazard reduction blocks require annual burning, while others may exhibit acceptable fuel levels with burning intervals of 8 to10 years. Annually, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service burns an average of 10,000 to 15,000 acres of public lands and 5,000 acres of private lands.
Management of smoke from prescribed burning is a critical issue. It can affect air quality, highway traffic, and nearby properties, and is subject to Federal and State air pollution laws. Recent changes in the Federal Air Pollution Standards require reduced emissions of particular matter, as well as gaseous emissions. All adjacent smoke-sensitive areas must be identified in the burning plan. Wind direction and speed, and smoke dispersal are some of the atmospheric characteristics that should be considered before conducting a burn. Firing techniques also affect smoke emissions. Backfires produce considerably fewer emissions than other firing techniques does.
Wildfire in New Jersey
Land-use pressures, improved transportation, more leisure time and an increased desire for a more rural lifestyle have resulted in a proliferation of residential subdivision and developments in wildland area that are subject to forest fire hazards. The majority has been planned and built without due consideration for forest fire protection.
The potential for a wildfire disaster in New Jersey has been dramatically illustrated numerous times. Large conflagrations occurred several times from 1930 to 1977, and most recently in 1995. The most notable of the fires was on the weekend of April 20-21, 1963, when wildfires destroyed 183,000 acres of land, consumed 186 homes and 197 buildings, and were responsible for 7 deaths. In 1995, one wildfire burned 19,225 acres in Ocean County, and during the summer drought of 1997 an 800-acre fire damaged 52 homes and threatened over 300 more homes in Berkeley Township.
The "Wildland Urban Interface" is the term used to describe the placement of residential communities within forested areas. This trend is confined not only to New Jersey, but has become a national issue as well. Forest fires burning into developments have taken an increased toll on improved property. Several fires have reached disastrous proportions, destroying homes and taking lives. Residents of wooded areas must take this threat seriously and take precautions to prevent future disasters. Prescribed burning to reduce forest fuels, coupled with other fire protection measures, can provide an effective level of fire protection for homes in the wildland urban interface.