‘Flash drought’ forces officials to ban fires in six counties in NJ Highlands

State fire officials have imposed a ban on fires in six counties in the New Jersey Highlands in the wake of a sudden dry spell that’s left woodlands choked with dried fuel from trees and bushes that grew thick during the rains that prevailed earlier this year.

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service on Monday prohibited all fires in wooded areas of Warren, Sussex, Morris, Passaic, Hunterdon and Somerset counties, unless they’re elevated a foot or more above the ground in fireplaces or grills made of steel, stone or brick, within a 10-foot cleared area.

Forest Fire Warden Christopher Franek called the woods a tinderbox, saying that the forest floor is gasping for water.

“Especially over the last two or three weeks, all the vegetation has sucked the moisture out of the ground,” he said, as dried underbrush crunched beneath his feet as he walked along a trail in Andover. “And then again we’re going into our fall fire season, which the canopy is falling off, leaf fall, and allows the forest floor to get more heat, thus continually losing moisture and drying out the woods.”

The ban, a Level Two restriction, means no ground fires are permitted in the affected areas.

That was disappointing news for Andover resident Marie Ricca, whose fire pit will now have to stay covered.

“Everyone does this on the weekends, you know?” she said. “So now we can’t enjoy our weekends.”

How bad is it?  Rainfall measured in the state in September was roughly an inch, less than a quarter of the historic average. And that comes after an abnormally wet first seven months of the year.

The problem with the sudden dryness is made worse by a warming climate, according to state climatologist David Robinson.

“It was the fifth-warmest summer in 125 years, and September’s going to come in around the 10th warmest,” said Robinson, who’s also a professor at Rutgers. “So you have the warmth and you have the absence of precipitation. So that can very quickly affect soil moisture, your lawns brown out. Leaves are starting to turn earlier due to the absence of moisture for shallow-rooted vegetation. And it happens in a flash.”

The state Forest Service has reported more than 550 fires across the state this year through the end of September, torching more than 13,800 acres.

Officials say there’s a heightened risk of roadside brush fires, too.

If the drought continues, the Forest Service warns it could ban all outdoor fires.

“Any fires — whether from a campfire or a wildfire or such as a downed power line on the side of the road — it will spread rapidly without quick, initial attack on the fire,” said Franek.

It’s going to take a good, hard rain to fix this problem, at least an inch, Franek said. Until then, fire restrictions will continue.