Wildfires burning in California, Oregon and Washington have scorched an estimated 3 million acres.

As the worst West Coast fire season in more than 70 years continues, dozens of people have been killed, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and toxic air pollution caused by smoke is threatening millions.

Meanwhile, as the fall season begins, wildfire danger is growing in the Garden State.

“We have a lot of similarities actually to California in that we have vegetation that’s conducive to fire start and fire spread,” said Greg McLaughlin, the chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.

New Jersey is densely populated, many people live near forest areas and the weather has been dry just as the leaves are about to fall to the ground.

McLaughlin said the Forest Fire Service monitors the weather and keeps an eye on forest areas so that if a fire does start there can be a quick response. But wind is a wildcard, particularly in the Pinelands in South Jersey, where dense shrubbery can grow right into the tree-tops.

“This means fire could in effect spread from the ground where all fires start, through those ladder fuels and those shrubby fuels into the canopy and then be driven by wind,” he said.

McLaughlin pointed out at this time of year, a small fire can quickly erupt into a major blaze if the winds start blowing.

“It will actually move fire in a way such that it’s throwing embers further ahead of the fire, quarter of a mile, half mile, even up to a mile,” he said. “And then those embers can start new fires.”

He noted historically we don’t see as many big fires in New Jersey in the fall compared to the spring, but fire danger levels are still elevated at this time of year because we’re so densely populated.

“We don’t have to have a large fire for it to be essentially catastrophic, for it to threaten lives and property and cause damage,” he said. “A small fire could be catastrophic.”

He said later this fall and winter, when conditions are more predictable, the Forest Fire Service will conduct a robust prescribed burning program in areas like the Pinelands, to create fire break points that will hopefully stop a blaze from continuing to spread.

In addition, vegetation management is conducted in certain areas to thin and clear undergrowth that could act as a fire accelerant.

“We want people to realize this is the time of year when fire danger goes up,” said McLaughlin. “It’s wonderful to enjoy the beauty of nature but we’re just asking people to be careful. “

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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