11,000-Acre Pinelands Blaze Contained but Not Explained

Tom Johnson | April 2, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Fast-moving wildfire edges close to Route 72, but responders — helped out by rain — keep conflagration from crossing roadway

Credit: Ocean County Sheriff Dept.
pinelands fire
A wildfire that burned more than 11,000 acres over the weekend in the Pinelands and is now fully contained likely began in a remote area known for illegal bonfires, state officials said yesterday.

The fire, one of the largest in recent history, was first spotted in Penn State Forest early Saturday afternoon by two fire towers when each detected smoke. By the time forest-fire fighters, local responders, and others arrived, it had already consumed more than 30 acres, driven by strong southwest winds, officials said.

The fire was moving too quickly to contain it with direct fire suppression, according to Forest Fire Service Fire Warden Greg McLaughlin. It spread very quickly, leading authorities to close Route 72. “By late Saturday evening, I was very surprised it did not cross Route 72,’’ he said.

Instead, officials concentrated on containing the fire — they were helped out by rain on Sunday — setting back fires to burn up fuel and prevent the blaze from leaping across the road. “It puts the guys in a little bit of a precarious’’ situation, McLaughlin said.

Searching for source of fire

So far, investigators have ruled out prescribed burning, power lines, and lightning as causes of the fire. Brian Corvinus, section lead arson investigator for the Forest Service, suggested human beings as the likely cause, but declined to say whether the blaze started accidentally or was deliberate.

“We know where the origin was. We’re just looking for more information,’’ Corvinus said.

The authorities are asking for the public to provide any helpful information about how the fire started by calling New Jersey State Police Detective Sgt. Shaun Georgeson at the Tuckerton barracks, (609) 296-3132.

New Jersey is no stranger to dangerous forest fires, particularly in the 1-million-acre Pinelands, an ecosystem that thrives on naturally occurring wildfires. An average of 1,500 wildfires damage 7,000 acres of woodland in the state each year, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. Ninety-five percent of the fires are started by people, according to officials.

While officials noted the fire was 100 percent contained, they said they were pretty confident of holding the perimeter while small pockets of unburned fuel remained inside. No injuries, or property damage to buildings, or evacuations were reported, officials said.

The area where the fire apparently started has not had any prescribed burns —controlled burns that eliminate fuels that can spread wildfires —in recent years, McLaughlin said.

“Things are looking good from the air today,’’ he added, referring to aerial overflights to monitor for thermal hotspots. “It’s looking favorable.’’