NJ Unlikely to See Australia’s Climate Extremes, Can Still Learn From Raging Fires

Jon Hurdle | January 9, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Similarities include dense population close to potential wildfire sites, forest fire chief says
Credit: NJDEP
A prescribed burn to reduce undergrowth set by NJ State Forest Fire Service last summer

New Jersey is unlikely to be faced with the severe drought that has led to the recent catastrophic bushfires in Australia, but it can learn from that experience as its own climate changes, experts said on Wednesday.

Warmer, wetter winters and hotter summers are predicted for the Garden State as the climate changes, but the weather likely won’t match the extremely high temperatures and prolonged, pervasive drought that have created the historic wildfires in Australia’s southeast, experts said.

Still, New Jersey’s densely packed population means many people are living in or near areas such as the Pinelands that are susceptible to wildfires, a situation similar to Australia’s, where many homes have been lost to the fires. And there’s plenty of natural fuel for fires to feed on in both locations.

Factors favoring wildfires

“We have a lot of people, we have the fuel, and the weather,” said New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Gregory McLaughlin, during a conference call with reporters to discuss possible similarities in wildfire risk in the two locations. “It puts together the potential for large-fire growth.”

He argued that the current situation in Australia has combined drought, human activity, and extremely hot, dry weather to create circumstances that are “beyond human control.”

New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson said Australia is likely to see more drought as the global climate changes, while the northeastern United States will probably see spring starting earlier, summer lasting longer and winters that are both warmer and wetter than previously seen.

“Rather than a trend toward absolute desiccation and conflagration, we in New Jersey may become susceptible to a longer fire season because spring starts earlier and summer lasts longer,” Robinson said, in an interview.

Although New Jersey is unlikely to face the same wildfire threat as Australia or California, there are sufficient similarities to cause people to take notice, Robinson said.

“If these fires in Australia, and the ones we’ve seen recently in California can prove useful in New Jersey, it’s to increase people’s awareness about how dangerous things can be,” he said.

For people who live in the Pinelands, wildfires are a familiar experience and a necessary part of the natural cycle, but must still be respected, said Jason Howell, a stewardship coordinator for the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and a longtime Pinelands resident.

“South Jersey receives far more rain than Australia or California, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t see a large wildfire during a draughty spring or summer,” Howell wrote in an email.

Learn not to burn

He said his relatives still talk about a 1963 wildfire that burned 120,000 acres of the Pinelands. To minimize the threat of such an event, people living in the area should fireproof their homes, and maintain a 100-foot buffer of “defensible space” where there’s no combustible material such as woodpiles or outbuildings, he said.

“When fire does come to an area, those residents who have prepared will have a reasonable chance of saving their homes,” he said.

Even if New Jersey is not threatened by fire to the same extent as Australia or California, it is already subject to some effects of climate change, such as an infestation of the southern pine beetle, which kills trees and creates more fuel for fires, said McLaughlin of the forest fire service.

If winters are becoming wetter, they may prevent the service from doing the prescribed burns that are its main method of thinning combustible material from New Jersey’s forests, he said.

And with climate changing, he said his staff is increasingly called on to help fight fires in states such as Alabama and Kentucky where they have never been deployed before.

“We’re seeing the need for support that we’ve never seen before,” he said.