Will America’s Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in 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.