During a special legislative hearing in March, New Jersey forest fire officials warned that parts of South Jersey face the potential for a catastrophic wildfire that could cause even more damage than the deadly fires that have swept through parts of California in recent years.

Almost a year later, as fire danger levels in the Garden State are about to start rising, very little has changed.

Greg McLaughlin, the chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said the Pinelands region, which has more than a million acres of forest, wetlands and farms, continues to face an elevated threat because the forest is so dense and the underbrush is so thick.

“We do still have the potential for large wildfires," he said, adding that efforts to bolster wildfire prevention are being made.

He said a part-time attorney has been hired “to write and develop rules as per the Prescribed Burn Act." The law has given the agency additional “liability protection for practitioners, and it’s also expanded the definition of where and when we can use fire as a tool to manage the fuels on the landscape.”

Last year, the Forest Fire Service was able to target almost 29,000 acres for prescribed burning, compared to the normal 20,000 acres.

“We will be eagerly and aggressively looking to increase our prescribed burning, or fuels management opportunities," McLaughlin said about this year.

Prescribed burns on state and privately owned lands are weather dependent and cannot be done when it’s dry, warm and windy.

Brush thinning and mowing teams are out and about in parts of South Jersey and everything possible is being done to minimize the wildfire threat, which begins to ramp up in about six weeks or so, he said.

“April is our highest wildfire danger month. We are starting to have warmer days, longer days, lower humidity, and frequently we have wind," he said.

Todd Wyckoff, bureau chief for the New Jersey Forest Service, agrees.

“The forest density condition in the Pinelands of New Jersey is at an elevated level that does make our forest susceptible to things like wildfires," he said.

He said his agency is working closely with the state Forest Fire Service to minimize the wildfire threat as much as possible.

Bob Williams, a forest expert and owner of Pine Creek Forestry Management Company, said state officials are doing everything they can with the resources they have to minimize the risk of a potentially disastrous wildfire starting and spreading.

But he said that with the right combination of dryness, low humidity and wind, South Jersey could quickly face a deadly and destructive wildfire scenario.

“I don’t think anything has changed in terms of the potential for fire and the risk that it poses," he said.

“There’s no question we could have certainly loss of many thousands of homes and most likely some loss of life.”

He said the big difference between New Jersey and states out west is the west tends to get the right conditions for wildfires more frequently than we do, but it can and does happen here.

“It may come in three weeks, it could come this fall, it could come in five years from now. We don’t know. No one knows," he said. "But we do know it’s going to come.”

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

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