Lawmakers Looking to Keep Wildfires From Setting NJ Woodlands Ablaze

Bill would establish certification program for controlled burns, reducing risk of forest fires and better protecting lives and property

Wildfires are a fact of life in forests, particularly in the Pinelands, where they contribute to a healthy ecosystem. But they also can threaten lives and homes when not contained.

To reduce the hazards posed by wildfires, not an infrequent occurrence in South Jersey, lawmakers are renewing efforts to allow forestry officials to conduct prescribed burns in the state’s woodlands.

The bill (A-1275) is identical to legislation pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the lame-duck session that ended in January. Modeled after similar programs in at least 10 other states, the measure is backed by conservation groups and the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

“Conducting controlled burns in a safe, strategic, and coordinated effort will protect more homes and lives against wildfires,’’ said Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Ocean), the bill’s sponsor.

The state currently conducts some prescribed burns, but there are no standards for how they are done and how to issue notifications on lands other than those owned by the state. The legislation would establish a certification program for prescribed-burn managers and procedures for conducting the burns.

“We need to have standards in place,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Right now, we don’t have them and that’s a problem.’’

Under the bill, the Bureau of Forest Fire Management, within the Department of Environmental Protection, would prescribe burns in any area of the state that is determined by the agency to be in reasonable danger of wildfire. On lands now owned by the state, the service would be required to notify local government of the burn, publish public notice, and aler the landowner or lessee 30 days prior to the burn.

“We can avoid catastrophes and promote a healthier forest environment by expanding the use of safe and controlled burns, which also have a number of secondary ecological benefits, including wildlife management, forest disease and pest control, and nutrient management,’’ Dancer said after his bill was advanced last week by the Assembly Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee.

Some conservation organizations have been pressing for a bill setting standards for prescribed burns for a decade. They said the programs in states like Pennsylvania and Florida have worked very well.

“Homeowners want them to do more prescribed burns because it protects them from wildfires and protects their property,’’ said Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which oversees 15,000 acres of woodland in the state, also endorsed the bill.

There are significant portions of that land that could benefit from controlled burns, particularly from an ecological enhancement perspective, according to Alison Mitchell, policy director of the foundation. The organization cannot get insurance to do controlled burns now, she said.

While some environmentalists questioned whether controlled burns might conflict with laws governing air quality, Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, disputed that view.

“If you actually have a wildfire, it would create an even riskier situation for air quality,’’ he said.

The bill is the second to be taken up by lawmakers early this year to try and better protect the health of the 1.8 million acres of state’s woodlands. Previously, a bill (A-1775) that would allow the harvesting of trees in forest won approval from an Assembly committee. That bill, however, is much more controversial than the prescribed-burn measure.

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