The Pinelands Paradox: Fire Changes Forests, Fire Changes Lives
By Vinh Lang, Forestry Consultant | Pine Creek Forestry | Contact: email@example.com
It is the 60th anniversary of the Black Saturday Fire – April 20th, 1963. A day when a fury of 127 fires blotted out the sun across the South Jersey sky, destroyed 183,000 acres of property, and took seven lives according to historic accounts.
As a forester, the 60th anniversary is especially significant. On average, 60 years is about the amount of time for a forest in South Jersey to mature/recover from a stand replacing fire, clearing, or other disturbances which might reset its trajectory. Like the forests that were burned in the Black Saturday fire, our current forests are similar, older even, and with higher fuels today as well as houses and developments. With changing climatic conditions and about 3 million more ignition sources (most fires are started by people according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service [NJFFS]) we are primed to repeat a similar tragedy. Climate change coupled with other human induced stressors is increasing the probability of another firestorm.
The recipe for fire is conceptually simple: heat oxygen and fuel. However, wildland fire control takes generations to master. To affect wildland fire behavior, we consider three legs of the fire behavior triangle: fuels, weather, and topography. We have ample fuels and ignition sources. Depending on the weather, we have potential for extreme fires like the Black Saturday Fire.
Our firefighters in the NJFFS are highly skilled at manipulating fire behavior. It takes a certain type of hero to leave the comfort of their families and homes, push themselves physically and mentally harder than you can imagine, and face “a wall of fire 200 feet high” (John Cecil, NJFS) in the middle of the night to save your property and home. Let us be thankful, forward thinking, and ask ourselves what level of risk we can ethically ask our firefighters to take on. Especially, considering that we can plan and make decisions to affect fire behavior before it happens.
In March 2023, a Pinelands commissioner suggested reviewing the comprehensive management plan as to assess whether a 200-foot fuel break is necessary in high or extreme fire hazard areas – with particular emphasis on the preservation of trees rather than human lives. A fuel break is a natural or manmade change in fuel characteristics which affects fire behavior so that fires burning into them can be more readily controlled. In practice, these areas ensure protection of resources, property and people and can also be safe zones for wildland fire logistics and personnel. Similarly focused land management strategies have been proposed by the legislature, including Senator Smith and participants of the NJ Forest Task Force which elevate carbon storage without meaningful consideration for other ecological or social values.
John McPhee said it best, “Whatever else they do, men in the Pine Barrens are firefighters throughout their lives.”It is time to internalize the past and do better for our natural resources and our citizens today and in the future. We can draft a plan for our public natural resources that accounts for multiple values/tradeoffs, and consider the dignity of our citizens, especially our firefighters. To me, we have a responsibility to the young people risking their lives on the fire line. My hope is conservationists of the future do not have to read about tragic fires that did not have to happen.
Vinh Lang has a Master of Forestry from Yale University and is currently employed as a Forestry Consultant with
Pine Creek Forestry.