An annual prescribed burning program is under way in New Jersey's forests, to clear away excess debris.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said the controlled burns are important to keep wildlands safe and healthy.

"We like to do this when weather conditions are cooler and there is more moisture on the ground," he said.

Hajna said Forest Fire Service personnel are very highly trained in doing this, "and they do this very methodically."

Hajna said if it is a very windy winter, it is very difficult to conduct these operations safely, so the service will scale them back.

"Also you can have too much snowfall or rain, and that can make it difficult to light the ground fires, which we are trying to accomplish," he said.

Hajna said the debris is fallen branches, pine needles and leaves.

"When you have too much debris and competing undergrowth, it can actually make our forests less healthy," he said.

Hajna said that in the past, natural fires would go through our forests, especially places like the Pine Barrens. Some might be sparked by lightning; others would be lit by Native Americans to keep the forest floor clean.

Hajna also encouraged residents in forested areas to be aware that they may see plumes of smoke, and understand controlled burns are taking place.

"If they are not sure, if they think that there is an actual wildfire and they want to check to see the status of the burning program is ... they can go to our Division of Parks and Forestry Facebook page. They can call the Forest Fire Service at 609 292 2977. But if they are in doubt about the source of the smoke or fire, call 911 or 877-WARN-DEP, which is 877 927 6337."

The state forest fire service targets between 10,000 and 20,000 acres annually for these burns, taking place through March.

Joe Cutter is the afternoon news anchor on New Jersey 101.5.