Rutgers Experts Can Discuss N.J. Pinelands Ecology and Wildfire Risks


Expert Pitch

New Brunswick, N.J. (April 3, 2019) – Rutgers experts can provide insight on the conditions that can lead to wildfires like the recent New Jersey Pinelands fire in Penn State Forest, Burlington County.

John Dighton, a forest soil ecologist and director of the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station in New Lisbon, New Jersey, since 1994, said the New Jersey Pine Barrens are seasonally dry and wildfire is a natural part of its ecology.

The Pine Barrens ecosystem has been established and maintained by periodic wildfire in a manner different from fires that consume tree stands in other ecosystems, such as the recent forest fires in California.

Pine trees in the New Jersey barrens have cones that open and release seeds only after heating, and buds that can withstand some heat, allowing pine trees to resprout.

Blueberry, huckleberry and shrub oaks in the forest have buds at the root crown, allowing resprouting after a fire, said Dighton, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers–New Brunswick, and the Rutgers–Camden Department of Biology.

“With increased development in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, concern about wildfires has increased due to the potential damage to buildings and harm to people,” he said. “Hence, we have developed a system of fire prevention by immediately trying to suppress wildfires and attempting to reduce their frequency and extent by staging managed burns during the cool season, ostensibly to reduce fuel loads.”

“This control measure reduces the frequency of wildfires and some suggest that it is altering the balance of competition between oak trees that are susceptible to fire and pines adapted to fire, leading to a greater abundance of oak in the forest than would naturally occur. Hence there is a general push by concerned natural historians and scientists to allow controlled burns of higher intensity in the growing season to mimic wildfire, but reduce the risk,” Dighton said.

David A. Robinson, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers–New Brunswick and New Jersey State Climatologist since 1991, said spring is the primary fire season in the Pinelands, grasses have yet to green up and any deciduous trees have yet to leaf out. Thus, there is abundant sunlight on the forest floor, and considerable debris left over from the previous season. Additionally, the area had not had rain since March 22 and above-normal temperatures arrived on March 29 and 30.

“This is all that is needed to prime the area for fire,” said Robinson, who oversees the Rutgers NJ Weather Network and helps coordinate the New Jersey Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. “Add gusty winds on March 30 and you have a recipe for any fire that ignites quickly spreading. Just 10 days before this event, a rainstorm soaked New Jersey, yet subsequent conditions quickly led to fire weather conditions. As for what lies ahead, this fire showed us that an extended period of dry weather is not needed to establish conditions favorable for burning.”

Dighton is available to comment at dighton@njaes.rutgers.edu

Robinson is available to comment at david.robinson@rutgers.edu or 848-445-4741.

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