Deadly wildfires in Australia raise concern: Can it happen in NJ?

David Madden
January 13, 2020 - 4:30 am
Department of Environmental Protection agents perform a prescribed burn in 2019, to clear combustible materials that could start a wildfire.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

TRENTON, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — With massive wildfires causing historic levels of destruction in Australia, some wonder if similar devastation could happen here. That question was put to those who deal with wildfires in the New Jersey Pinelands.

Gregory McLaughlin, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, hesitates when asked the question point blank, given the similarity on the ground with not just tall trees, but a good deal of shrubbery that can easily become fuel for a fire.

“It acts like a one continuous shrub,” he said. “So the fire can move quickly from the ground through what we call the shrub layer up to the treetops and become a rolling crown fire.”

Those are the toughest to control.

That said, he suggests that precautionary efforts like clearing brush around homes in the Pine Barrens help to control the threat. But there are still about a thousand wildfires a year in the area, 80% of with are kept to under a half-acre thanks to increased monitoring and quick action techniques. But if dry weather, wind and flames get together sometimes you just can’t avoid a wildfire. And that is what he believes is happening down under.

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McLaughlin suggested climate change is also a factor. His teams have been dispatched far and wide to deal with wildfires, and not just in New Jersey.

“This year for the first time, we supported fires in Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia,” he added, “when typically in the past that’s been California, Montana, Nevada. We’ve been asked to support fires in Canada.”

He said taking action before a fire starts is the best way to avoid disaster.