Thu. Sep 28th, 2023

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A wildfire burning through southern New Jersey’s pine lands may become the state’s largest fire in 15 years, officials said Monday.

The Mullica River Fire, which began Sunday, has grown to 12,000 acres and has been 70 percent contained, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS). No injuries were reported, but the blaze threatens at least 18 structures in the Wharton State Forest area, including the Batsto Village historic site. Wharton State Forest sits amid an ecosystem known as the Pine Barrens, about 20 miles northwest of Atlantic City.

Officials ruled out natural causes, and New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said the fire could have been avoided.

“It reminds me of the imperative we all share, to take the care of the environment and each other, to follow the rules,” he said during a Monday news conference. LaTourette did not say whether investigators had determined a cause but said he was speaking generally on issues, including campfire maintenance and other activities that are typically the cause of man-made fires.

There were no burn restrictions in place before the fire broke out Sunday morning, officials said.

By Monday, fire crews were fighting the blaze in four townships — Washington, Shamong, Hammonton and Mullica — after dry and breezy conditions helped the fire spread, according to the NJFFS.

Authorities said wind was hindering efforts to drop water from helicopters while areas along the Mullica River — which the fire jumped twice — were too wet for equipment to get in but not wet enough for fire to be stopped.

The fire service said crews were working to contain the blaze with backfiring operations, a firefighting tactic in which fires are intentionally set along the inside edge of a fire line to burn fuel in the wildfire’s path so it doesn’t expand.

Fire crews are focusing their efforts on protecting structures in the Wharton State Forest campgrounds and the Batsto Village, a historic site in Washington Township, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The wildfire forced the two closures, including portions of U.S. Route 206, a north-south thoroughfare.

“The fire is in the southern section of the state forest that runs along a state highway, Route 206, which is also near woodlands where there aren’t private residences that are in any immediate danger,” Hajna told The Washington Post.

The vast Wharton State Forest is home to various outdoor recreation areas that were closed Monday as a result of the fire.

Unlike in California, which saw more than 10,000 structures damaged or destroyed during its historic 2020 wildfire season, wildfires in New Jersey tend to occur in forested lands less populated by residences, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2019, the Spring Hill Fire burned 11,638 acres of southeastern pine land in a remote section of the Penn State Forest, in Burlington County. New Jersey’s largest was the May 2007 Warren Grove Wildfire that ignited after a flare was dropped during a military bombing exercise at the Warren Grove Bombing Range. That went on to burn 17,000 acres in the Pine Barrens area.

“Boy, it’s the baddest one I’ve ever seen,” New Jersey resident Spike Wells said of the latest fire while speaking to the Asbury Park Press on Monday. Wells, 71, lives about two miles from where officials have blocked off Route 206 and operates a nearby sawmill.

“We’ve seen a lot of them,” Wells said. “Every year they’ve got some forest fires, but not like this. It’s terrible.”

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