NJ unveils wildfire prevention program

February 28, 2008 1:40:55 PM PST
State officials will use aerial photography, computerized mapping, and records from past forest fires to help communities in the Pinelands better protect themselves from future blazes. In plans unveiled Thursday, the state Forest Fire Service and the Pinelands Commission paid particular attention to areas where densely populated neighborhoods press up closely against the woods in Barnegat and Stafford townships - two areas among the hardest hit by last year's massive Pinelands fire that charred more than 17,000 acres.

A key component of the plan is creating "fuel breaks," areas cleared of trees and vegetation that could feed a fire and bring it closer to homes and businesses. By clearing the areas near buildings, communities give themselves a better chance of fighting the flames and preventing them from jumping to structures.

"Last year's wildfire had a significant impact on several Pinelands communities, and it reinforced the pressing need to address wildfire risks in areas of the Pinelands where forests and development meet," Pinelands Commission Chairwoman Betty Wilson said.

The blaze was touched off when a National Guard pilot on a training mission over the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Little Egg Harbor Township dropped a flare into the tinder-dry Pinelands from too low an altitude on a day when fire danger was great.

The May 15 fire destroyed four homes in two senior citizen housing developments, and damaged 37 others. Although 6,000 people were chased from their homes, only two serious injuries were reported.

"In light of the events of last spring, we believe this is an excellent opportunity to identify and address issues and conditions in our community that pose wildfire risks for our residents," said Stafford Administrator Paul Shives. "The memories of black smoke in the air over the western portion of our town are still fresh in everyone's mind."

Other elements of the plan include urging property owners to use fire-resistant roofing and siding when building or remodeling; cleaning gutters and roof surfaces of leaves and debris; spacing plants to minimize contact with structures and each other, and pruning large shrubs and trees so there are at least 10 feet between their crowns.

Residents are also urged to plan alternate escape routes if an evacuation becomes necessary, as it did last year.