New Jersey Forest Fire Observers Form First Line of Defense

May 17--High atop a 100-foot tower overlooking the Pinelands, David Achey scanned the green forest canopy through binoculars for telltale signs of fire.

This month, he spotted a blaze that scorched 500 acres in Pemberton Township and hopes to catch the next one before it races across the tinderbox of leaves, pine needles, and brush covering the ground.

"Today is quiet, but March, April, and May are our busiest months for fires," Achey, a New Jersey Forest Fire Service observer, said while keeping watch last week in a Medford tower, above a sea of pines and oaks.

"This business is weather dependent," he said. "When you get warmer temperatures, lower humidity, and high winds this time of year, you have extremely bad conditions that can lead to fires."

Nearly 1,500 acres of New Jersey forest burned from January through early May, compared with about 900 during the same period last year, when more regular intervals of rainfall helped discourage fires, state officials said.

Trying to spot the threats early are forest fire observers, such as Achey, who staff 21 towers across the state as a first line of defense.

"I'm up here whenever the forest is dry enough to burn," said Achey, 30, of Waterford Township. "I work every month of the year [in the tower] -- especially mid-February through November."

The fires start as a "tiny wisp of white smoke, and they build and build and build," he said. "The darker the smoke, the more fuel being consumed by the fire."

Ecosystem balance

Not all fires are bad.

They're a necessary part of the Pinelands' ecosystem, a kind of housecleaning to consume dead vegetation on the forest floor.

The fires "are not a threat to the trees, plants, and animals. They're a threat to the people," said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group.

"Suppressing fires actually has a negative impact, because fire is the main source of change and dynamism in the Pinelands," he said.

Wildfires "open up areas of forest to the sunlight, which allows plants to grow and creates a diversity of habitat," Montgomery said. "They don't burn everything equally."

"You have hot areas where pitch pine trees will burn and die, and other areas not so hot where some die and others don't," he said. "You get more open areas. You get different species adapting to different situations."

Preventing smaller fires can create a greater risk, Montgomery said, since the flames consume the dead leaves and pine needles that build up and that make for larger, more destructive blazes later. "We conduct prescribed burns every year," Achey said. "We do them in November to March. We only did a few burns this year because of the [early] frequent rainfall and unusual amount of snow."

The fires, whether controlled or accidental, have other benefits. "The burned leaf materials contain nutrients that become more available to plants," said Dennis Gray, laboratory manager at Rutgers University's Pinelands field station in New Lisbon, Pemberton Township. "There is an immediate postfire fertilizing effect and quick flush of growth during the active part of the growing season," Gray said.

Within days of a blaze, new growth can be seen, and within weeks, "green shoots are sprouting everywhere," he said. "You'll see growth on scorched pines and scrub oaks growing from the roots of old trees. It doesn't take long for the forest to come back."

Saving lives, property

Unapproved man-caused fires, though, can be particularly destructive over large swaths of the Pinelands.

A flare deployed by a fighter jet during training at the Warren Grove Bombing Range was blamed for a May 2007 fire that burned about 18,000 acres, destroyed four homes, and damaged dozens of others.

And a fire in April 1995 consumed about 20,000 acres. The cause was not determined.

Most fires are not so large.

The afternoon of May 8, Achey and another observer at the Lebanon fire tower spotted the Pemberton blaze, which spread across 487 acres from a campfire that had not been properly extinguished.

The observers used alidades -- rules equipped with telescopic sights -- to determine the location of the blaze and call for help.

Soon, a three-mile stretch of Route 70 was shut down as aircraft and 100 firefighters battled the wind-whipped flames between the Country Lake Estates development and Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.

A Jet Ranger observation helicopter joined four water-dousing aircraft: two air tractors, a biplane, and a helicopter.

"In New Jersey, with so many houses, we can't allow fires to burn," said Achey, who served as a firefighter before becoming an observer 11 years ago. "It will affect people sooner or later."

Two Pemberton Township men were arrested on arson charges, accused of failing to adequately put out a campfire in woods along the Seneca Trail. Fires can crop up -- especially on windy days -- even when the forest seems safe after a rain.

"The soil is sandy, so the rain drains through fast, leaving the pine needles and brush to burn," Achey said as he looked west toward the horizon, where the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, about 20 miles away, could be seen. "You'll get one or two inches of rain, and two days later you'll be fighting a fire," he said.

The Pinelands is "about trees, sand, water, and fire," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "It's an intricate ecosystem, one part dependent on the other."

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Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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