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...

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."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or