While I was growing up in the heart of the South Jersey Pine Barrens, the threat of wildfire was always at the back of my mind. When I was little, the woods across the street from my family’s house caught fire. I’ll never forget what it felt like to peer out the window and see that sinister orange glow creeping up toward our house, or waking up to see that every tree within eyesight had been burned to a blackened crisp. For most of my childhood, it stayed that way, ghostly and still. But eventually, the trees began sprouting new growth. The forest came back. As my dad explained to me then, in the Pinelands, fire is a part of life.
Wildfires have long been an important part of the Pines ecosystem, but they are getting riskier. The densely wooded region has a number of ecological “ingredients” that make it especially susceptible to wildfires, with the NJDEP website noting that it is “one of the most hazardous wildland fuel types in the nation.” This year, as of Sept. 25, New Jersey had already seen 894 wildfires burning 4,711 acres. A 2016 State of New Jersey Wildfire Risk Assessment compared the Pinelands specifically to “an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey.”
The Pine Barrens are still something of an enigma to those who grew up beyond its wooded borders. The 1.1 million acres of the Pinelands National Reserve, created in 1978, make up 22% of New Jersey’s total landmass and sit on a 17.7-trillion-gallon aquifer. While its inner recesses remain rural and remote, the Pinelands' outer edges and bigger towns are only an hour’s drive from Center City (and on the way down the Shore). Yet it exists in a liminal space — a mostly forgotten corner of the state whose residents are saddled with century-old classist stereotypes and whose breathtaking natural resources are continually under threat.
And I grew up smack dab in the middle of it. I was born and raised in the tiny village of Chatsworth, christened the “Capital of the Pines” by naturalist John McPhee in his 1968 book The Pine Barrens. My family still lives there, and I am fiercely proud to be a “Piney,” an old demonym that was once intended as a slur against the region’s poor and working-class residents but has since been reclaimed by those who have cedar water running in our veins.
For those who aren’t familiar with its quirks, the Pines can come off as decidedly alien, a strange world of sugar sand, cedar water swamps, Seussian pines, sphagnum moss, cranberry bogs, and blue holes — dangerous old gravel mines filled with warm water that tempt locals for swimming. The soil is fine and sandy, prone to lapsing into quicksand; its acidic nature and inhospitality to their preferred crops is why disappointed European settlers declared the region “barren.” The water is the color of strong black tea, tinted by cedar tannins and the naturally occurring iron deposits that once supported a major iron industry. Rare wild orchids and carnivorous plants abound, and 126 threatened or endangered plant and animal species call the forest and wetlands home. Blueberries and cranberries are major crops for farmers. The legend of the Jersey Devil looms large in local lore, and when you’re out in the woods at dusk, alone with whirring insects and silent pines, it’s easy to believe there just might be something else out there, too. My grandma’s sworn she’s seen him.
And of course, there are the trees — dense clusters of scaly pitch pines, whose slender needles scrape the sky and perfume the air after rainfall, and their Lilliputian counterparts, the “pygmy pines” that carpet the Pine Barrens Plains and barely hit four feet after decades of growth. The pitch pine has developed several distinct attributes in response to frequent wildfires: some of its pine cones only open to release their seeds after exposure to intense heat. If a pitch pine is burned, even down to the root, new growth will eventually sprout. After a millennia of fire, the pines are prepared to weather the cruelest blaze. Humans, on the other hand, are staring down the growing risk of being chased out by fire.
The original stewards of this land, the Lenni-Lenape people, understood the cycle of fire and rebirth, using burns to clear brush and debris to limit future damage for centuries before European settlers showed up. Now, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is tasked with keeping the fires under control using a variety of methods, including prescribed burns. “By using the prescription of fire, we reduce those fuels down, we reduce the litter on the forest floor,” state fire warden and New Jersey Forest Fire Service chief Greg McLaughlin told me. “Simultaneously, knowing historically where fires have happened, or where there’s higher risk areas, we try to build in these fire breaks and fuel breaks.”
The Forest Fire Service is already well-versed in the science of battling blazes, and has devoted significant study to controlling wildfires' impact on the Pines. During fire season, they rely on early detection and rapid response, and spend the offseason tweaking their robust prevention strategy and using historical wildfire data to develop new tools like WRAP (Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal). Their work also includes public outreach efforts like Firewise, a community fire prevention program, and ubiquitous Smokey the Bear fire warning signs that line the region’s highways and sternly remind passerby that “only you can prevent forest fires!”
The bear has a point. According to McLaughlin, most forest fires are started by humans, including the devastating 2019 Spring Hill Fire that tore through over 11,000 acres of pine forest and the 1963 Black Saturday fire that burned 193,000 acres and killed seven people. Since that 1963 blaze, the population of the area has tripled to nearly half a million people. With more people leaving suburbs and cities for the Pines' rural setting, and developers still pushing for an environmentally destructive pipeline that would run through the Pines, the risk of human-created fires has only increased.
“That quiet voice whispering 'fire’ has stayed coiled around my brain stem, and lately it’s gotten louder.”
Many of the region’s smaller towns and villages are isolated, with spotty cell service and a single road leading in and out. Add that to an intensifying climate change crisis and unpredictable weather conditions that have already ravaged much of the West Coast, as well as the arrival of invasive species like the tree-killing southern pine beetle that worsens fire risks, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster previewed in one 2016 Rolling Stone headline: “Will America’s worst wildfire disaster happen in New Jersey?” The guardians of the forest are certainly doing their best, but the doomsday clock is still ticking.
Right now, the forest surrounding my parents' house is lush and green and alive. I cherish every moment I’m able to spend out in the woods. But that quiet voice whispering “fire” has stayed coiled around my brain stem, and lately it’s gotten louder. With the climate heating up and the environment being plundered, the Pines in all their otherworldly beauty are a reminder of what we stand to lose.
So I write this as a love letter — and a warning. Remember that at the drop of a cigarette butt or a malignant gust of wind, all of this could go up in smoke. It is truly a place where only the most determined can survive, but there is beauty in that resilience. Humans neglect the fragile wonders of the Pines at their own peril. Someday, the forest won’t come back.
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in South Philadelphia. She is a regular contributor to Teen Vogue, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the Baffler, and the author of the forthcoming labor history book “Fight Like Hell.”