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April 22, 2016

Rolling Stone: New Jersey pinelands primed for worst wildfire in U.S.

State DEP spokesman dismisses article as 'way over the top'

A story earlier this week in “Rolling Stone” magazine – Will America's Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey? – has stirred up a bit of a firestorm in the state.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Forest Fire Service, on Friday, called the story, which suggests a raging uncontrolled firestorm could sweep through the Pine Barrens, “way over the top.”

Bob Williams, a private forester and land manager in Laurel Springs, Camden County, who has for years called for more active management through both fire and cutting, sees it differently.

“I think 'Rolling Stone' has put it out on the table. Now it isn’t just Bob saying it anymore,” Williams said Friday.

“They did a good job of getting the connections, though they did sensationalize it a bit,” Williams added.

This quote from the story by the magazine writer Kyle Dickman summarizes the differing views:

“Not everybody thinks the situation is dire. Williams and the views he espouses are so polarizing in the small world of Jersey forestry that the state's forestry office stopped returning my calls after I mentioned I'd interviewed him.
“He's been called a troublemaker, always stirring things up for the benefit of his business.
“But the science is supportive of Williams' claims. The Forest Service classifies the Pinelands as being just as flammable as the brush that torches Los Angeles suburbs each fall.”

New Jersey's wildfire season runs until about mid-May when leaf cover reduces risk. The entire state was under a Red Flag wildfire warning last week.

Williams said the New Jersey Assembly held a hearing on the very same fire issue a decade ago – then forgot about it.

While he knows he is seen as a man crying wolf, Williams went out of his way to say the DEP and fire service do “a really good job” and have “top-notch people,” but they have failed to manage and have not made key partnerships for better management.

Of the more than 1 million acres of pinelands in the state, Williams said, “We saved it – but we haven’t tended it.”

The state has done well protecting life and property, but done “really poor” when it comes to instituting “modest ecologically-based plans,” to assure the health of the state’s woodlands,” said Williams.

Hajna said the magazine’s reliance on the record-setting 1963 fire in the pines that burned 190,000 acres overlooks advances in firefighting that allow most woods fires today to be put out before they make much headway. 

Hajna also pointed out that the state this year did burns that cleared the forest duff that fuels fires in about 17,500 acres. 

That amount is too low, argues Williams, and fires should be done not just in later winter and early spring, as is the protocol now, but also in the summer as that has a different ecological consequence on which species grow back.

“From the Apple Pie Hill fire tower in the heart of the pines, you can see from Atlantic City to Philadelphia. Most fires we can reach and put out just after they show a puff of smoke,” said Hajna of the state's vigilance.

He also said the state has 1,200 firefighters on call, plus agreements for support from surrounding states and the federal government.

“We respect the fire danger in the pinelands,” Hajna said.