The largest wildfire raging in the western United States, the August Complex in California, has scorched 800,000 acres — the local equivalent of an inferno raging from Reading, Pa., to Turnersville, N.J.
And that’s just one of dozens of blazes throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Officials in those states where more than 35 people have died have begun calling them “climate fires," saying the blazes are reaching farther and burning longer than past wildfires because of climate change.
While conditions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are much different, both states are looking down their own forested roads to plan for the role climate could play in future fires. The biggest threats in the greater Philadelphia area come in spring, but despite recent rains, some areas to the west now are dry.
New Jersey’s roughly 1.1 million acres of Pinelands is the most likely tinderbox. Greg McLaughlin, chief of the state’s Forest Fire Service, acknowledges the potential for “large catastrophic fires” already exists.
Fire is part of the Pine Barrens ecosystem. The dry, sandy soil prevents vegetation from decomposing, leading to lots of potential fuel on the forest floor that has built up for decades in some areas. Pitch pine, highly flammable, needs fire to release seeds from cones.
Meanwhile, the Pinelands’ 1,819 square miles of connected shrub oak, laurel, and blueberry create a dense link to the tree canopy, allowing fire to spread explosively, similar to some conditions in California’s forests. Wind blows uninterrupted across the flat landscape.
For example, the March 2019 Spring Hill fire burned more than 11,000 acres in the Pine Barrens, starting with embers that spread from an illegal bonfire, fueled by wind. A large-scale fire, blown by westerly winds, could escape to neighboring communities.
Typically, fire threats are highest mid-March through May.
“It’s sort of becoming accepted nationally that the fire season ... is starting earlier and going longer,” McLaughlin said. “We’re seeing this a little bit as well. We had a large fire in 2018 that occurred in late February.”
He said conditions were ripe when vegetation grew extensively during that record wet year, followed by a warm January and February.
“You’re starting to see, on a larger, global scale something happening with climate and it’s changing things,” he said, “like how vegetation responds to long periods of drought and long periods of rain. So we’re seeing fire happening in non-traditional times."
Through its prescribed burning program, the forest service uses a variety of methods to prevent wildfires, including intentionally burning up to 25,000 acres a year to clear brush. To help stop fires from spreading, crews create fire breaks in advance, thin old brush with machines, and mow.
“Our program is growing and we’re at a point where we’re hosting workshops for other professionals,” McLaughlin said of the New Jersey Prescribed Fire Learning Exchange, which has drawn fire professionals from Utah, Idaho, and elsewhere. Members share ideas, and New Jersey has already sent firefighters to help out West.
But state officials acknowledge their current measures, hampered by limited resources, are not enough. More brush needs to be burned, they say.
Bob Williams, owner of Pine Creek Forestry, a private forester in South Jersey, has warned for years the Pinelands are a conflagration waiting to happen. He credits the fire service for protecting the area, but said the state needs a plan for how to manage all of the hundreds of thousand of acres it owns.
He agrees a lot more acres need to be burned than the state can manage right now.
“We have to start being realistic about this,” Williams said of the fire threat. “That means we need to manage the forest in terms of its ecological integrity but also in reducing the fuel loads to a more natural state as it was hundreds of years ago when native people used burning to manage the land."
His solution: establishing a logging program, but not one based on clear cutting. "The situation with our pine forest is almost identical to what we see in the West. It’s overstocked,” Williams said.
The threat might be less in Pennsylvania, but the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources warns of “increased frequency of wildfire, blowdowns, and other natural disturbances” in its 2018 climate plan.
“Compared to the western U.S., fire has not been a major disturbance in Pennsylvania, but that is likely to change," the plan states. "There is already evidence of an extended fire season, with fires now happening year-round, not just in spring and fall.”
Still, Mike Kern, the state’s chief fire warden, said “the likelihood is fairly low” for now of a large-scale fire because of Pennsylvania’s geography and weather. Kern said 1,100 wildfires, sometimes referred to as brushfires, have been reported this year, but most are less than an acre, and almost all were caused by people.
He said Pennsylvania has enough roads that provide good access for firefighters, unlike in the sprawling West. Kern noted that Western droughts can last years, while those in Pennsylvania tend to be short lived. Currently, 18 Pennsylvania counties are in a drought watch and one, Potter, is in a drought warning. Droughts can lead to favorable conditions for wildfires.
Pennsylvania’s fire season tends to be in the spring, fanned by winds at a time when vegetation and trees have not yet grown leaves that retain water, slowing fire. In addition, it’s a time when there’s little shade, allowing sunlight to dry the forest floor.
Kern said recent springs have been relatively wet, which helps brush decompose more quickly, unlike in the Pine Barrens and U.S. West, where droughts persist for years. Kern also pointed out that California and Oregon have a lot of residential communities surrounded by forest, making fires even more life-threatening. And, unlike in the West, fire-sparking lightning here is usually accompanied by rain.
If Kern has one fear right now, it’s people — most fires start with homeowners burning leaves, branches, or debris.