BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Bill Brash stood with a cadre of residents of the Four Seasons at Mirage on the edge of the slender barrier between their development and the vast New Jersey Pinelands as they surveyed their handiwork.
The group, who live in the over-55 community had volunteered to help create the firebreak. In some cases, alongside paid landscapers, they had even done the heavy lifting — removing tree branches and clearing brush along the 10-to-20-foot-wide clearing, which was completed two years ago.
But on a bright afternoon Friday, a cloud of worry hung over the group. The Pinelands Commission is contemplating proposed changes to its "comprehensive management plan" that Brash, president of the New Jersey Fire Safety Council, a Freehold-based nonprofit, feels could pose a fire hazard by making it more difficult to construct and maintain firebreaks wider than six feet.
Proposed amendments to the commission's Comprehensive Management Plan would add a requirement that construction and maintenance of any firebreak over six feet wide would need a permit before any work commences.
"There are literally thousands of miles of firebreaks in the Pinelands — most of them well over six feet wide — so this proposed amendment would require a permit for nearly all of them," said Brash, who insists the measure could slow down the firebreak process in red tape.
Back when their firebreak was being created, the Four Seasons at Mirage group had obtained a $5,000 fire-safety grant to pay for the work and then donated more than $5,000 worth of volunteer efforts to finish the job. The perimeter barrier stretches for miles around the gated community, according to one volunteer.
"They've done all this because they want to feel safe in their homes," said Brash, whose liaison group works with communities such as Mirage and with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, which oversees firefighting efforts should a blaze occur.
Brash says there are five such communities in Barnegat alone, encompassing thousands of residents, and dozens of such communities throughout the region.
While wildfires in California and Arizona dominate the headlines, experts contend that such out-of-control fires could easily occur in the Pinelands, a dense, mostly uninhabited forest that spans parts of seven southern New Jersey counties. Since the early 1900s, hundreds of fires have broken out, though only two of them have burned more than 150,000 acres.
The most catastrophic Pinelands fire occurred in 1963 when 190,000 acres, stretching from Long Beach Island to Atlantic City, became an inferno, killing seven people and destroying 400 properties. A 2007 fire forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes. The blaze was set when a military bombing test at the nearby Warren Grove range accidentally ignited 15,000 acres of woodland.
"In some cases, these firebreaks are ultimately the only thing between us and our homes and these fires. And when managed properly, they do their job to keep people and property safe," said Moira Flynn, 66, a 17-year Mirage resident who helped work on the firebreak plan.
Firebreaks play a key role in preventing wildfires from spreading by removing "ladder fuels," such as shrubs and low-hanging branches, and aid in the management of prescribed burns, which are ignited by firefighters to clear fuel in advance of actual wildfires, Brash said.
A spokesman for the DEP, the agency that oversees the Forest Fire Service, said it is reviewing the proposal but currently has no further comment.
The Pinelands Commission, which manages 938,000 acres in the 1.1 million-acre federally protected lands, is reviewing its overall management plan and will accept written comment from the public on the matter until Nov. 17, said its executive director, Nancy Wittenberg.
"When we looked at the plan, we realized we didn't even have a clear definition of what a firebreak is," said Wittenberg. "We need to create clear definitions on this and other matters within the plan in our ongoing efforts to protect the Pinelands."