Thanks in large measure to all of the rain we’ve had this summer, the forest fire danger level is low and there are no campfire restrictions in New Jersey.

But state forest fire officials are still concerned.

According to Greg McLaughlin, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Firewarden, high humidity levels have decreased the risk of a forest fire because vegetation in the Garden State is filled with moisture, but a spark from a camp or bonfire or from a lightning strike can ignite a low-level fire.

“The fires can persist, essentially underground in somewhat of an anaerobic environment with little oxygen, and smolder and not show much smoke so they’re not necessarily detectable," he said.

He pointed out, however, that if temperatures remain high for a few days with no rain and the wind picks up “and these fires find a place where they can get oxygen, a hole in the ground or perhaps there’s a dead hollow tree, then they can come up above the surface and begin to grow.”

McLaughlin said this kind of scenario is more likely, where a storm will pass through quickly with lightning starting a fire and “the fire persists in a low manner until conditions until conditions become ripe for the fire to grow larger.”

He said during the spring season controlled burns are used to decrease the chances of a major fire burning out of control in many parts of New Jersey, but during the summer “we typically will use much more water to cool and suppress that persistent underground smolder.”

What is called “accumulated organic matter” on the forest floor will quickly begin to dry out during periods in the summer when there is no rain, and that material will be where fires will really start to get going.

The forest fire service does continuous surveillance in areas where lightning strikes have occurred during the summer, because low-level fires do not produce much smoke and may be hard to detect for several days after a storm has moved through.

He stressed it’s important for people to understand even though we have had a fair amount of rain this summer, “that doesn’t mean conditions are not appropriate for fire to start so we’re asking everyone to be careful with their campfires and charcoal fires.”

And if you’re out and about in the woods and notice smoke rising from a particular area, “please report it immediately.”

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

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