Will America's Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey? - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics News

Will America’s Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey?

Fires in the West dominate headlines, but the single most destructive blaze in U.S. history could occur in the Northeast

Every few days this spring, another small wildfire breaks out in the Pinelands, a 1.1-million-acre tract in southern New Jersey that spans seven counties and is home to some 500,000 people. So far this year, firefighters have doused the flames before they caused any significant, or at least widespread, damage. One fire turned four mobile homes to ash. Another closed the Garden State Parkway for a few hours. But Jersey won’t always be so lucky.

If the conditions are right, experts predict that on a dry morning in late April or May — the height of wildfire season in the reserve — the dense forest between Philadelphia and Atlantic City could explode into an inferno that moves as fast as any out West. In a worst-case scenario, the fire might start just east of, say, the 7,000-person town of Tabernacle. Flames fueled by pine needles and 40-mile-an-hour winds will crawl within minutes from the forest floor to the crowns, growing from 20 to 30 to 70 feet tall as they leap between trees and over sandy roads. Between Tabernacle and the Atlantic Ocean are 30 miles of thick woodlands interspersed with a dozen retirement communities, a military base and a nuclear generator. If it is Memorial Day, there will also be thousands of vacationers. When Shawn Viscardi, the heavyset volunteer fire chief for Chatsworth — an 800-person village in the reserve — hears the first smoke report on the radio, he’ll pray the fire isn’t already too far gone.

“Anything that comes outta the west with a good head of steam on it, we’re not going to stop it,” Viscardi tells me in his fire-station office, staring at a map of the Pinelands. “We just can’t.”

Viscardi might think of the hikers on the 50-mile Batona Trail that cuts between Chatsworth and Tabernacle, but he’ll dismiss the thought. They can’t be helped. Instead, he’ll warn the residents of Panama Road, a 100-home subdivision sunk deep into the Pines, to evacuate immediately. With only one road in and out, firefighters will almost certainly be unable to protect them or many other Pinelands homes. Two hours after ignition, gusts will loft embers two miles ahead of the main blaze, lighting pines where they land. Should they blow east toward Chatsworth’s Ocean Spray cranberry warehouse, they will incinerate the 50,000 wooden crates stacked outside the building, generating enough heat and embers to combust a block of homes across the street. Over the next few days, if the winds keep blowing, flames could kill hundreds and lay waste to several billion dollars in property.

Although wildfires in the American West dominate headlines, the single most destructive fire in U.S. history could occur in the Northeast. New Jersey’s Pinelands (also known as the Pine Barrens) is the lone island of contiguous forest in the 45-million-person megacity that comprises the Eastern Seaboard from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston — the densest population cluster in the country. Whereas regular fires used to thin out the Pinelands, large swaths have remained relatively untouched for decades due to strict preservation laws. The result is a giant tinderbox of untended woods that’s surrounded by 100,000-person suburbs. A Wildfire Risk Assessment published by New Jersey compared the Pinelands to “an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey.”


The last bad Pinelands blaze was in 1963. On a day now known as Black Saturday, an estimated 37 human-sparked fires ran through some 190,000 acres from Long Beach Island to Atlantic City, killing seven and destroying 400 buildings. (Humans are the cause behind 99 percent of blazes in Jersey.) In John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens, the author said about the 1963 fire, “The damage to buildings was light, but only because there were so few buildings to damage.” Since then, the population in the Pinelands has tripled while the forest has become even thicker. If a series of blazes starts on the right dry and windy day, it could take out a large chunk of the Jersey coastline. Yet despite the increasing danger, state officials can’t do much to counter it. One significant fire, let alone 37, could tap out their current response capabilities.

Four hours after starting, 4,000 acres of the Pinelands will be ablaze. As the fire gathers momentum, most of New Jersey’s 1,200 part- and full-time firefighters will race toward the smoke from across the state; so will volunteers from the neighboring counties. But the gale-force winds that give rise to the fire will also ground the state’s single-engine air tankers and 60-year-old helicopters. Some units will try to protect the houses they can reach; others are likely to make a stand on Route 72 and attack the main blaze by lighting backfires — intentionally burning the forest to rob the fire of fuel. Their efforts may steer the flames away from the mental-health facilities at New Lisbon Developmental Center to the north or spare the community of Presidential Lakes, but not everybody will be saved. Six hours after the fire starts, the houses packed into the forest on Panama Road will likely be ash in the mile-wide head of flames that will have leapfrogged nine miles to the east. Residents in Keswick Grove will evacuate. So will the retirees at Pine Ridge and the staff at Ocean County Airport. Emergency managers will shut down the Garden State Parkway.

Fire behavior is difficult to predict, but if a blaze of Black Saturday’s intensity struck today, it’s hard to imagine the state escaping with only a small number of deaths and minor property damage. In 2016, a catastrophic wildfire like the 1963 inferno could have exponentially more severe consequences. “Sooner or later, southern New Jersey will know the fire equivalent of Hurricane Sandy,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire-ecology professor at Arizona State University. “The cost could be in the billions. The loss of life could be unthinkable.”

In my early twenties, I fought wildfires for five seasons throughout the West, barely registering that the East was even flammable. But last year, I heard Pyne — the world’s foremost fire expert — talk about the potential disaster in the Pinelands. Nothing, he said, would wake the public like a megafire so close to Manhattan that the smoke would sting New Yorkers’ eyes. The claim sounded outrageous. In fact, I remained skeptical until I recently saw the Pinelands for myself.

In the West, fire season gets rolling in Arizona and New Mexico in late May. Over the summer, it often extends north through Colorado and Montana and west through Oregon, Washington and California before ending with a flash when the Santa Ana winds rake flames over San Diego and L.A. in the fall. Fire season tends to begin earlier each year, and large parts of the West are now two degrees warmer than in 1895 and are predicted to get another four to six degrees hotter by century’s end. Warmer temps are one reason Western firefighters quip that their once-seasonal job is now year-round. Thicker forests are another.

In wildland firefighting, success does not breed success. Stopping fires in their infancy allows forests to grow thicker and more at risk of bad blazes. Before the Forest Service started fighting fires, around 1910, lightning strikes and native peoples used to burn around 50 million Western acres each year. Today, some 30,000 wildland firefighters and their equipment — smokejumpers, fire engines, air tankers — check that number at around 11 million. If that sounds impressive, it’s worth noting that 50 years ago about a third as many firefighters kept the annual acreage burned to roughly half what it is today. The flames have become that much harder to control. In 2011, one blaze outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, laid waste to roughly an acre of giant pine trees per second for the first 13 hours. The flames were several hundred feet tall — I watched them from my home in Santa Fe. With more than 140 million Americans living in places that could burn like it, and 840,000 more moving westward each year, it was also a terrifying reminder of what could happen if a megafire hit a town or a city.

A fire’s cost and destructiveness are measured by the amount of infrastructure it threatens to burn. If half a million acres turn to charcoal in the Alaskan wilderness, few care. But lately, fires have been creeping closer to homes as cities sprawl. San Antonio has $7 billion in property threatened by wildfires; Denver has $10 billion, and San Diego and L.A. are close behind. Back in the Eighties, when the West was more sparsely populated, the federal government spent about $200 million battling wildfires each fire season. Since 2000, the average is closer to $1.3 billion. In 2015, one of the most destructive fire seasons to date, the feds doled out nearly twice that amount.

Wildfire damage to a city can be astronomical. America’s worst contemporary wildfire hit Oakland in 1991. It killed 25, destroyed 3,300 homes and 2,000 vehicles, and cost $2.67 billion in losses. A New Jersey megafire could dwarf that record. In the Pinelands, half a million people and billions in property abut woods that Pyne called “the biotic equivalent of a munitions depot… among the most flammable landscapes in America.”

Yet the risk is overlooked. CoreLogic, an analytics firm that studies natural disasters for insurance companies, doesn’t investigate fires in New Jersey because “the need’s not there for our clients.” According to Tom Jeffery, the firm’s senior scientist, they focus their work on the states “responsible for 80 to 90 percent of total wildfire activity.” In other words, destructive wildfires aren’t annual events in Jersey — they don’t meet the rubric.

Over the past century, roughly 100,000 wildfires have burned in the Pinelands. According to a smaller state catalog of significant wildfires since 1905, firefighters or weather stopped all but 19 before they reached 1,000 acres, and only 10 grew beyond 10,000 acres. Just two became biblical blazes that torched more than 150,000 acres each. The last struck about 30 years before CoreLogic even existed.

In Jersey, fire season peaks in spring, during those few dry weeks before the oaks sprout leaves, which create shade and effectively trap moisture in the forest. Sometimes, the winds never arrive, which is why bad fires in the Garden State seem rare. “All these different sine waves, perfectly in phase, need to line up,” says Joseph Charney, a research meteorologist for the Forest Service who studies fire and weather in the Northeast. In 1963, New Jersey was in a historic drought when a weather system that originated in the West funneled 40-mph winds over the state, the front cutting off much-needed moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. For a repeat of that event, it has to be a drought year. There needs to be a series of days with low relative humidity, a great big windstorm must move in, and firefighters must fail to catch the fire immediately.

This spring, Jersey saw normal rainfall, so the state is unlikely to see a blaze of Black Saturday’s intensity — fires over 10,000 acres occur only every few decades. So far this year, just a few Jersey fires have burned much more than the average parking lot. One raced through 350 acres before firefighters put it out; another blackened 30 acres and closed down the roads for a bit.

But that doesn’t mean the state is out of the woods. Bad conditions align often enough that New Jersey has twice applied for FEMA’s Fire Management Assistance Declaration since 2000, both for Pinelands wildfires. One, in 2007, burned about 15,000 acres and forced people from 2,500 homes before 1,000 firefighters and a 90-minute burst of heavy rain helped douse the flames. And every year that passes, the forest grows thicker, only increasing the risk of a worse blaze. In the 50 years prior to 1963, just two days had conditions perfect for disaster. None have occurred since. Charney thinks all that’s needed is a severe drought.


Most people don’t believe me that the big one’s coming,” says Bob Williams, his accent thick with Jersey. “But when the conditions are right, this place is going to burn, burn, burn.”

Williams, a lifelong Pinelands resident and forester, is driving through the reserve in his Ford F-150. It’s a cool day in December and fog hangs low over the ground. Yuengling signs and Wawa stations fly by, replaced by retirement communities surrounded by densely packed pines. “There’s so many subdivisions built into this drum-tight forest,” he says. “It’s a deathtrap.”

Just talking about “the big one” whips Williams into a froth, a mode he’s in too often. At 65, he’s a lean six feet six with a full head of gray hair and a thin face. A year ago, he survived a heart attack, caused, perhaps in part, by the stress of his job. As a Pinelands forester, he makes his money using chain saws, backhoes and intentionally set fires to reduce the risk of fire danger and, he says, return the forest to historic conditions on about 100,000 acres of privately owned land in and around the Pinelands. For decades, he’s been warning politicians and the public that the Pinelands could soon host America’s worst fire. They’ve mostly ignored him.

Earlier, Williams had spread out a map of the Pinelands for me. Philadelphia, Atlantic City and the Garden State Parkway hemmed the woods. In 1978, Congress and the state government created the Pinelands National Reserve to protect 22 percent of the state from development. In the largest section, there’s limited logging, no Wal-Marts, no international airports, but the 56 towns already existing within the Pinelands were allowed to remain and grow inside their determined municipal boundaries. Though new development was subject to some fire standards, the houses were tightly packed into the forest. To Williams, they were constructed as if to “maximize the potential for catastrophic fire.”

Not everybody thinks the situation is dire. Williams and the views he espouses are so polarizing in the small world of Jersey forestry that the state’s forestry office stopped returning my calls after I mentioned I’d interviewed him. He’s been called a troublemaker, always stirring things up for the benefit of his business. But the science is supportive of Williams’ claims. The Forest Service classifies the Pinelands as being just as flammable as the brush that torches Los Angeles suburbs each fall. “If your house didn’t burn in California one summer, somebody else’s probably did,” says Nick Skrownski, a Forest Service researcher. “In New Jersey, you can go 10 to 20 years without that happening. It’s a decay of memory.”

The Forest Service studies the reserve but doesn’t manage it. That’s left to the state and the 15 members of the governor-appointed Pinelands Commission. But when Congress created the reserve, logging and thinning were regulated nearly to extinction on much of it. As the woodlands grew, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service — which had already started suppressing every blaze in the 1940s — became exceptional at its work.

“We catch most fires when they’re just a quarter or a half acre,” says Richard Boornazian, an assistant commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Forest Fire Service and the state’s firefighters. He says his guys are so good at stopping wildfires, even some employees in his own department aren’t aware so many — about 700 — burn in the Pinelands each year. Since the 1930s, the average annual acreage blackened has dropped from 100,000 to just 2,000.

Ken Clark, a research forester with the Forest Service, says the Pinelands are a looming danger. “You could kill more people out here than in any fire out West,” he says with a shake of his head. “And there’s not a lot the Forest Fire Service can do to stop it. It’s not like they can call their firefighter friends from the Forest Service or the next state over to help, like out West. They’re just not here.”

Wildfire; Jersey 1957

Stephen Lee, a fifth-generation cranberry farmer, knocks the mud from his boots. He’s standing outside a shop on his 1,800-acre farm near Chatsworth, “the heart of the Pines.” Compact, with crisp blue eyes, Lee oversees his cranberry farm. Annually, it generates 4 million pounds of berries from 135 acres of bogs. He attributes his success to the health of the woods that comprise the rest of his land. “We jealously protect them,” he says, nodding at the tree line.

Cranberries are farmed in water, and in the Pinelands, their productivity relies on the purity of the 17.7-trillion-gallon aquifer that underlies the forest. Lee, who is a client of Williams’, says his managed forest helps purify the water his cranberries need to grow. For Lee, the threat of wildfire is never far from his mind. He takes me to the place he could have died fighting a 1985 blaze on his land. “You’ve got to picture these were 70-foot trees,” he says, holding his hands up like goal posts in a tree plantation flanked by pines not much taller than his truck. A volunteer firefighter at the time the fire hit, Lee and his crew narrowly escaped 100-foot flames, fishtailing his truck around on a road too narrow to U-turn. The fire eventually died when the winds quit blowing. “My knees were shaking,” he says. “The only other time I’ve shaken like that is when the engine of my single-engine airplane cut out.”

Hundreds of thousands of trees flank us, many of them replanted by Lee. In some places in the reserve, fire’s heat can cause pitch pine cones to open, a phenomenon that can release so many seeds at once it sounds like rain falling against broad leaves. Such dense forest is a familiar sight around the Pinelands. But Lee’s trees, being younger than most, are about 60 feet shorter than the average pine in the reserve. “That fire hit just 11 years after another had burned the area,” Lee says, pointing out how quickly the pines regenerate. “Now, some of the land around here hasn’t seen a fire in 35 years or more.”

To mimic the natural fire cycles and reduce the risk of flames destroying his farm, Lee intentionally burns about 1,000 acres each year. “I’m willing to take the risk of a controlled fire,” Lee says, “in order to prevent wildfire.” Under Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, New Jersey’s Forest Fire Service has tried to do the same. A rough 10-year plan is in the works to light prescribed fires on acres managed by the state. Complicating matters, however, is that the EPA rightly considers wood smoke to be a health hazard. “If these guys get smoke into Camden or Philadelphia, the EPA gets pissed,” Clark says. “It’s a mess.” Though the EPA is considering making an exception for prescribed fire smoke, the agency’s ruling has yet to be made. For Williams, the forester, only around 15 days a year are suitable to light prescribed fires. Jersey’s Forest Fire Service still manages to burn about 10,600 acres each year, which is roughly the equivalent of fireproofing a few squares on a chessboard.

Most experts say the risk of a bad wildfire can be tamed for only so long. The phrase I heard most often was, “It’s not if, but when.” Only Boornazian dismisses the potential of a bad New Jersey fire as outright hyperbole. “I just don’t think alarms need to be raised,” he says. “That was a perfect storm. We work very hard every day trying to prevent another ’63 from happening.”

Despite this, no other source I spoke to considers these mitigation efforts enough; nor do any fault the Forest Fire Service for the problem. Most, like Chatsworth’s Viscardi, simply feel a bad Pinelands blaze is inevitable. “I’m a firm believer that history repeats itself,” he says.

So what can be done to prepare for a catastrophic Pinelands fire? Several scientists I spoke to suggest building moats of firebreaks around the Pinelands’ border and each town inside it, effectively bottling flames in the woods. Williams thinks the state should manage its way out of the crisis. He wants to see a landscape-wide plan created that allows for more logging, more thinning, more burning, and all of it more regularly. “I am not suggesting we are going to be able to thin all the forest or return fire to all the Pinelands,” Williams says. “But we can begin to manage the forest and fire in a way that allows us some control over uncontrollable events and dramatically reduces risk to life and property.”

Doing the work will take decades and cost tens of millions of dollars. But the alternative, as Williams sees it, is grim. “If somebody doesn’t stand the hell up and do something about this,” he says, “a fire’s gonna scrape this place down to a parking lot.”


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.