Wildfire risk rises in New Jersey as development continues in fire-prone areas

About a quarter of New Jersey homes are in Wildland Urban Interface, where human development meets wildland and fires can thrive.

Friday, December 1, 2023
Wildfire risk rises in NJ as development continues in fire-prone areas
Wildfire risk rises in NJ as development continues in fire-prone areas

MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP, New Jersey (WPVI) -- When Pastor Joe Serratelli saw a photo of his church surrounded by flames in April, he couldn't believe his eyes. He immediately sent the picture to his good friend and the founding pastor of his church, who replied with a verse from the Bible: "And the gates of Hell shall not overcome it."

The Building on the Rock Community Church in Manchester Township, NJ, was threatened by a major wildfire in April.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

The Building on the Rock Community Church, where Serratelli is lead pastor, was ultimately saved by local firefighters.

"We kind of had that sigh of relief moment," Serratelli said. "God is still good. He's still powerful. He protected our church. He protected the people."

The experience awakened Serratelli to his community's vulnerability and reliance on neighborhood "heroes" at the fire department, he added.

"I took a ride over to the church that morning and just was surprised by how much devastation was around us," he said.

The fire, named the "Jimmy's Waterhole" wildfire, was just one of 14 major wildfires across New Jersey this year - more than three times the typical count, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).

Serratelli's church was among 75 structures threatened by the Jimmy's Waterhole fire. It sits on the edge of Manchester Township, nestled near the northeastern tip of the New Jersey Pinelands, a national reserve encompassing over one million acres of forests, wetlands and a few dozen municipalities.

The church is in an area considered Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, where human development intermingles with wildland. These places are prone to wildfire, experts say, as flammable vegetation fuels the spread of flames and embers.

But despite the increased risks, people and businesses are continuing to build in these areas: From 1990 to 2020, the number of homes in WUI across New Jersey grew by 23%, according to a 6abc analysis of data from University of Wisconsin researchers.

As development continues in and around wildlands, these areas expand. Today, about a quarter of homes in New Jersey -- including 43% of homes in Ocean County -- are in WUI, the analysis found.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin noted that his state is the most densely populated in the nation, and that nearly all wildfires are started by people.

"We have the ignition sources, we have the cause," McLaughlin said. "Now we start moving those people into these rural areas, and then that becomes some of the ingredients in this recipe for more wildfires."

New Jersey's wildfire season typically runs from mid-March to mid-May, McLaughlin added. But in the last five years, he said, that season has grown longer, starting as early as February and stretching all the way through the summer.

This season, New Jersey saw 1,081 wildfires, which collectively burned nearly 18,000 acres of land and threatened 209 homes. McLaughlin called the season "exceptionally busy" and "unprecedented," noting that the lack of snowfall last winter contributed to the surge.

As climate change creates dryer, hotter conditions and brings more snowless winters, this trend is likely to continue. And longer wildfire seasons mean more wildfires.

Over the next 30 years, 221,259 properties across New Jersey will be at major risk of wildfire, according to a 6abc analysis of data from research group First Street Foundation. Of those, 68,402 will be at severe wildfire risk.

About 45% of the New Jersey homes with major risk and 60% of those with severe risk statewide are in Ocean County.

In the neighborhood encompassing Building on the Rock Community Church, two thirds of homes will have major wildfire risk over the next 30 years, and more than a fifth will have severe risk. In some of its nearby neighborhoods, almost every property will have major risk.

"In an area like this, you think about these pinelands and dry seasons, you always think something could happen," Serratelli said.

But experts say there are steps the church and other communities facing increasing wildfire risk can take to protect their properties. These include clearing leaves and pine needles from their roofs and gutters, replacing flammable vegetation on their properties with fire adapted foliage and creating a buffer area between the forest and anything that could feed its fire.

NJDEP's Firewise Communities Program sends Forest Fire Service workers to WUI neighborhoods to help residents adapt their properties and create evacuation plans, McLaughlin said. The agency also helps them develop Community Wildfire Protection Plans to collectively prepare for disasters.

Additionally, the Forest Fire Service works to prevent large wildfires through a process called "prescribed burning," in which they intentionally set fire to a controlled area of the forest to burn vegetation that could fuel the spread of an accidental fire.

Once a wildfire spreads into residential areas, firefighters working to protect homes must employ a response tailored to WUI, experts say.

Waterford Township Fire Department Chief Chris Sylvia has trained his firefighters in tactics geared towards containing these types of fires, including training brush units on initial attack. More than half of Silvia's jurisdiction is in the Wharton State Forest, and many homes border the forest, he said.

This spring, Sylvia's department will partner with NJDEP, the Camden County Fire Chiefs Association and the Camden County Communications Center to expand WUI training countywide.

While his firefighters are familiar with WUI techniques, Sylvia said, "a lot of the companies throughout the county that we would rely on for support are not necessarily as knowledgeable about wildland interface, because they don't have that risk in their communities."

In addition to preparing firefighters from other areas to help places like Waterford Township, these trainings may be needed for their own municipalities down the line.

"As development increases and development encroaches on our natural environment, it's going to create more places where these Wildland Urban Interface fires are going to occur," McLaughlin said.

This could put a strain on the Forest Fire Service, he added: "If we continue to see an increase in the frequency, the duration, the severity, the length of the fire season, our resources will become stretched."

In September, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's office allocated an additional $3 million to the Forest Fire Service budget, a move that McLaughlin said was a badly needed boon for the agency. The funding will be used for staffing vacant state fire towers to boost surveillance, purchasing more aircraft to support quick response and upgrading other critical firefighting equipment, he added.

The Manchester Township Fire Department fought the Jimmy's Waterhole wildfire in April.
Building on the Rock Community Church

A few days after the Jimmy's Waterhole fire, Serratelli found out that the firefighters who saved his church included one of his own congregants, a young man named Nicco Pecorelli.

"All throughout the night while I was sleeping, Nicco was working," Serratelli said. "It was pretty unbelievable to know that we had a congregant like that."

Pecorelli said protecting his church from the fire was meaningful for him, too.

"In the fire industry, it's the same as within the church -- It's all community," he said.

As a volunteer firefighter, Pecorelli has experience fighting both structural fires and wildfires in undeveloped areas, he said. He also has first-hand knowledge of WUI fires: He lives near the church and said his home was threatened by another recent fire.

"Urban interface is definitely becoming more and more of a problem, with the houses being built so close to the wood line," Pecorelli said.

He added that New Jersey is following closely behind western states like California and Colorado, which have seen longer and more intense wildfire seasons.

"You can look at what they're going through and you could see that it's starting to come our way now," Pecorelli said.

'Weathering Tomorrow' is an ABC OTV series of data-driven localized reports about how climate change impacts people's quality of life, their property and their family's health, now and over the next 30 years. Every month this year and next, the data journalism team will provide custom, extremely local data that reveals measures like the increased frequency of flooding, the number of dangerously hot days, or the risk of major wildfires across our communities and down to the neighborhood level. See more at 6abc.com/WeatheringTomorrow.