As disastrous as it may be for humans, the fire that has consumed thousands of acres of South Jersey's Pinelands is part of nature's plan for the forest's very survival.

"Fire has been a driving force throughout its evolution," said John Dighton, a Rutgers University biology professor and director of its Pinelands Field Station.

The woods are predominantly pitch pines, which are so flammable that early settlers lit pine knots for torches. But pines are also, oddly enough, among the most fire resilient of the Eastern conifers.

Without fire, the pine cones won't get the intense heat they need to open and release their seeds. Hardwoods will crowd the forest even as its floor piles high with flammable debris.

Before colonization, foresters say, portions of the Pine Barrens burned naturally every few decades, sparked most probably by lightning.

But as more people have moved in, efforts have been made to suppress fires. If they start, they're put out fast. Most of the time.

Paradoxically, that results in a bigger buildup of fuel - branches, leaves and needles - "so when a fire does come, you risk having something catastrophic happen," said Carleton Montgomery, head of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

In the last decade or so, foresters have conducted controlled burns in the Pinelands as part of forest management and as a safety precaution.

But there's always the concern that the burns will, despite everyone's best efforts, rage out of control.

"The state is extremely conservative about when to allow controlled burns," Montgomery said, "so we don't get fires that are hot enough to replicate the natural sequence of a wildfire, and they don't burn enough acres to cover the whole area at risk.

"That challenge has not been figured out yet."

October through March, the national Forest Service conducts controlled fires over about 20,000 acres, a small percentage of the Pine Barrens' 1.1 million acres.

For the most part, the animals and other plants in the Pine Barrens have evolved with the forest so that fires will not threaten overall populations.

Snakes, for instance, often have holes a few feet deep in their area that they recognize as refuges. If they have time, they will slither inside and be protected, said Matthew McCort of Herpetological Associates in Jackson Township, N.J.

Officials are, however, worried about a population of northern pine snakes that were moved from a site in Stafford Township that is slated to be developed as a business park. About 130 of the snakes, a species listed as threatened in New Jersey, were moved. Although some were lost to hawks or died in other ways, the rest were being studied to see how they would survive after being relocated.

Yesterday, the herpetologist monitoring them could not get to the site because the fire was moving toward it.

This week's fire, which has burned 14,000 acres, could bring forth new growth within a month.

Trees that haven't been killed will sport a fringe of intense green along portions of their blackened trunks.

The pine cones will have released their seeds onto the newly bare ground. Gaining nutrients from the fire ash and sunlight through a canopy now open to the sky, they will germinate and grow.

"Probably by next spring you'll see regeneration," said Billy Terry of the national Forest Service's Northeast office in Newtown Square.

Other seeds in the soil that have not sprouted also will respond to the increased light and moisture.

"In the openings, you'll have a profusion of plants," Montgomery said. "Many may turn out to be rare."

Some of what has burned is part of a 12,000-acre "pygmy" forest that is the same species of pitch pine, just shorter, said Robert Zampella, chief scientist with the Pinelands Commission.

It has been estimated that, at the turn of the 20th century, the pygmy forest burned every six to seven years and the trees were "no taller than your knee."

But it has been so long since it has burned that the trees have grown as high as humans.

Fires like the current one "will remind people that this is a fire-prone system," Montgomery said.

"Nothing you can do could change that."

Read lessons about Pinelands fires via http://go.philly.com/earth

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Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.