Fire has been a major factor in New Jersey's environment since prehistoric times. Natural fires and Native American burning played a major role in shaping the land and providing the vast expanse of forestland that greeted early settlers. Pioneers adopted the Indian practice of burning the woods to clear land for agriculture.
Nevertheless, land clearing fire and increased fire frequency brought about other changes, sometimes with devastating results. The first law to regulate land clearing by fire was enacted by the colonial government of New Jersey in 1683. However, widespread interest in forest fire control in the state did not occur until the late 1800's. Until that time, fires were simply allowed to burn.
There are a number of early accounts and newspaper stories of fires burning thousands of acres of New Jersey woodlands, causing extensive damage to improved property and untold loss of life. One such account from 1755 reports a fire 30 miles long between Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor. In 1895, John Gifford reported to the state geologist that 49 fires burned 60,000 acres in Burlington, Atlantic and Ocean counties. Other early surveys, including those of 1872 and 1885 indicate that, as many as 100,000 to 130,000 acres burned annually in the Pine Barrens region alone.
In 1899, Gifford Pinchot, a hired consultant, submitted a report to the state geologist that emphasized the need for forest fire control and recommended the establishment of a forest fire service. In 1905, the Forest, Park and Reservation Commission was established and the first forest protection laws were enacted. In 1906, a law establishing the Forest Fire Service was enacted. Theophilus Price was appointed as the first State Forest Firewarden and a Township Firewarden system was established with 64 Firewardens appointed within the first year. In 1910, a system of look out towers was created. An agreement with the Postal Service for rural mail carriers to patrol the woods and look for and report fires to the newly appointed wardens was one of the most important features of this early system.
In 1924, under the federal Clark-McNary Act, the present system of forest fire protection was organized. Rapid advancements occurred under this system. In 1927, Colonel Leonidas Coyle first used aircraft for aerial observation. From 1933 to1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a series of firebreaks and roads in New Jersey State forests and parks.
Improvements in motorized vehicles and communications occurred in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In 1961, Steerman aircraft were first utilized for aerial bombardment of wildfires. A reorganization and professionalization of the service began in 1978 and was completed in 1980. The system evolved from horse and wagons to a modern fleet of more than 400 vehicles, aircraft and state-of-the-art equipment and technology to battle wildfires.