NJ Sierra Club reports 4.1.2019 – A wildfire that engulfed nearly 12,000 acres of the Pinelands has been reported contained. No injuries or property damage were reported. The blaze that consumed 18 square miles of Penn State Forest serves as a fresh reminder of the danger of wildfires and the role that the failings of state policies continue to play in increasing that danger.

“We are glad that the fire is under control and no one was hurt, but this is a reminder of the dangers of wildfires. These fires may be naturally occurring, but the larger fires in the Pines are becoming worse and more frequent. This is because of climate change and over-pumping of aquifers leading to drier and more dangerous conditions. We continue to build in the middle of the Pinelands and change the ecology of the region. Putting natural gas pipelines such as NJNG’s Southern Reliability Link in the middle of those areas could turn future forest fires into disasters if the blazes come into contact with those lines,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Development and climate change are putting more people at risk, and the state needs to a better job managing our lands and protecting our forests in the Pinelands.”

A 2016 article in Rolling Stone warned that America’s worst forest fire could happen in New Jersey. The environmental conditions and location of the Pinelands, ongoing development and pipelines all play a role in that threat. The proposed Heritage Minerals project would put 4,000 new homes into the region. Work on the Southern Reliability Link pipeline in the Pinelands continues. South Jersey Gas’s proposed pipeline is dead for now, but could come back.

“The Pinelands are surrounded by development, creating the prospect of a catastrophic fire as outlined in a Rolling Stone article in 2016 that said we could suffer the nation’s worst forest fire. That article laid out a worst-case scenario, a wind-blown blaze in dry conditions quickly cutting through the region. That scenario becomes more likely if we continue to over-pump the aquifers, dry out our wetlands and forests and put more people in harm’s way with more development like the massive Heritage Minerals project, and more pipelines like the SRL,” said Tittel. “It’s like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun; it’s only a matter of time one of these forest fires turns into a true disaster.”

Prescribed burns as were conducted recently by the State Forest Fire Service under the Prescribed Burn Act signed by Gov. Murphy last year are designed to reduce undergrowth and reduce chances of wildfires. That strategy comes with its own concerns about the impact of the burns, and the absence of strong environmental and safety standards.

“We have serious concerns that the Prescribed Burn Act does not properly address the serious issue of forest fires and how the prescribed burns affect them. The act does not properly consider climate impacts, air pollution, safety concerns, and liability. While prescribed burns can be at times important conservation tools, there needs to be much clearer guidelines and standards. The soil can dry out, making it harder for forests to recover from the burns. We are also worried that our forests’ resiliency and restoration could be compromised,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “New Jersey needs a better plan with the constant threat of fire in the Pinelands.  If we want to preserve our precious forest, we need to keep people out of those areas. We need better use of maps that identify high-risk areas where developments should not go. New Jersey needs to consider that due to climate change and forest management, we cannot rely on fighting with fire.”