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.”