Busy summer so far for NJ Forest Fire Service

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - August 1, 2010

"You're either bored out of your mind," he said, clutching binoculars, "or it's chaos."

Morse, 63, has for nine years been a fire spotter for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, and this year there's been more chaos than usual.

More than 6,000 acres of forest have burned statewide this year, including the 677 acres that burned in Bass River State Park last week in Ocean and Burlington counties.

This time last year, only about 1,000 acres had burned.

Morse will often spend all day peering out the windows in all directions, occasionally swapping weather information with headquarters and munching on a few snacks. His 110-foot tower, dubbed the Cedar Bridge Tower, stands next to Route 539 near the Barnegat-Lacey township boundary, three miles north of Route 72.

"On a really good day, I can see skyscrapers in (Philadelphia)," said the retired Navy man, a Barnegat resident. "I've picked up ships on the ocean."

But when Morse sees smoke, he rotates the compass mounted at the room's center until it points in the right direction, then records the degree of the angle between the fire and due north. Once a spotter in another of the state's 21 fire towers has done the same, they can triangulate the exact position of the fire.

Morse then starts to call firefighters.

"Guys tell me that how high my voice is tells them how fast to go," Morse said.

Those guys include both the full-time section wardens, such as David Achey, 30, of Waterford, and Shawn Judy, 30, of Chatsworth, and the $12-an-hour part-time district wardens on call, such as Bill DeGroff, 52, of Chatsworth and Eddie Mathis, 51, of Tuckerton.

They usually get to a fire in about 10 minutes.

Achey and Judy work 40 to 80 hours a week, getting comp time, not overtime, after a serious fire such as last week's Bass River blaze works them to the bone. Achey has fought, then investigated, more than 50 fires this year.

"This year's getting to be one of the worst ever," Achey said.

However, regardless of how busy he is, Achey said, "As far as I'm concerned, this is the greatest job on the face of the Earth." He joined up when he was 18, as generations of Acheys before him had done.

The job has gotten easier in some ways and more difficult in others. The advent of cellular phones means witnesses often alert the fire service to a blaze before the smoke is large enough for a spotter to see. However, more houses have been built deep in the woods, often without the 100-foot radius of open space that's optimal for firefighters, Judy said.

Forest Fire Service tankers usually hold 1,000 gallons, about half the capacity of typical municipal or volunteer tankers, Achey said. The vehicles must be small enough to maneuver in tight wooded spaces.

The vast majority of forest fires are one or two acres, started by cigarette lighters close to a road, Achey said. The 900-acre Warren Grove blaze in late June was an exception.

Days later, when the area was passable, Achey and Judy drove out to see where the fire started: a pair of trees with shallow scars down their trunks, where lightning struck. An investigation concluded the ground smoldered for two days before flames licked up, Judy said. Blackened earth and thousands of other blackened trees surrounded them.

Vietnam War-era helicopters, from the fire service's Coyle Field airport on Route 72, helped douse that fire. The pilots get plenty of practice at takeoffs and landings, said Bill Edwards, an Ocean Township resident who has flown for the fire service for 22 years. Each helicopter holds about 90 minutes fuel.

Achey and Judy are each in charge of half-dozen vehicles and about three dozen people. They call around to the on-call district wardens, such as DeGroff and Mathis, to see who would be available to fight hypothetical fires that day.

District wardens sometimes go months without getting calls, DeGroff said. He works full-time as a police officer for the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge authority, but "when this comes up, I put everything to the side," he said.

"You don't do it for the pay," said Mathis, who does landscaping work. "You just do it because you like it."

Section wardens such as Achey and Judy earn from $45,000 to $65,000, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said. For higher-up division wardens - the service has three geographical divisions - salaries range from $60,000 to $85,000.

For everyone interviewed, the largest fire of their careers was easy to remember. About 2:30 p.m. May 15, 2007, a flare from an F-16 at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range ignited a blaze that consumed 17,000 acres in Ocean and Burlington counties.

Morse noticed the region's risk of fire was high when his shift began at 10 a.m. that day, he said: "You knew if anything got started anywhere, it wasn't going to be a couple acres you could put right out."

Even after a hard rain, Achey said, "it only takes two or three dry days until we start having fires again."

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