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Will New Jersey’s Long, Hot Summer Mean More Forest Fires?

Peak forest-fire season should be over, but hot, dry weather and global warming could contribute to even more acreage being destroyed

forest fires
Credit: WHYY Newsworks

With experts saying climate change increases the risk of forest fires, this summer is shaping up to pose big problems for forestry officials.

So far this year, more than twice the acreage has been destroyed by forest fires compared with the same period last year, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

Since January 1, there have been 750 forest fires that have burned 4,017 acres, compared with 664 fires and 1,429 acres in the same timeframe the previous year, according to the service.

The good news is the state is pretty much through its prime forest-fire season, which typically runs from mid-March through late June, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Fire-danger levels around New Jersey are designated low, according to the Fire Service.

The bad news is the state is bracing for possibly its longest and hottest heat wave of the year through this weekend, bringing temperatures in the mid-90s to much of New Jersey.

As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The peak of the fire season is yet to come to the West, however, the U.S. Department of Interior noted. Already, more than 29,000 wildfires have burned over 2.6 million acres this year.

Last year was the most severe on record, with more than 10 million acres burned, an area equivalent to two times the size of Massachusetts, with a cost estimated at $2.1 billion, the agency said.

New Jersey is no stranger to dangerous forest fires, particularly in the 1 million acre Pinelands, an ecosystem that thrives on naturally occurring wildfires. The real trouble happens when people get in the way of those fires, as happened in 1963 when 190,000 acres burned, killing seven and destroying hundreds of buildings.

An average of 1,500 wildfires damage 7,000 acres each year, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. Ninety-nine percent of the fires are started by people, Hajna said.

“We haven’t had a big one yet this year,’’ he said, saying major fires generally range in the 2,000-acre to 3,000-acre range. In May, nearly 500 acres in the Bass River State Forest in South Jersey were burned in a wildfire.

But with dry, hot weather ahead, conditions can change fast. “If you get a week of 90 degree weather or more, it could be a tinderbox,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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