RATING FIRE DANGER IN THE PINE BARRENS
NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA: June 25, 2002
A new study getting underway in New Jersey's Pine Barrens
may help reduce the risk of fire in that valuable and volatile
USDA Forest Service researchers are setting up a project
that will change the way fire danger is rated to suit the
Pine Barrens' special conditions. The project is being funded
for nearly $2.2 million over a 5-year period through the National
Fire Plan, Research and Development program.
John Hom, deputy manager for the Northeastern Research Station's
(NERS) Global Climate Change Research Program, is leading
the study. Hom works out of the Station headquarters in Newtown,
Square, PA, near Philadelphia.
The study is being set up on the Silas Little Experimental
Forest in New Lisbon. Maris Gabliks, New Jersey state fire
supervisor, and John Dighton of Rutgers University are among
the research partners.
Fire officials nationwide use a rating system posted on signs
along the road to warn of fire danger and to advise the public
when extra precautions are needed. The "low" to
"extreme" danger ratings work well in most parts
of the country, but don't hold true in the Pine Barrens.
Rain, for instance, usually significantly lowers the fire
danger. In New Jersey, however, said Hom, "It can pour
down rain in the morning, and by afternoon a fire will flare
This is especially alarming in an area like southern New
Jersey, where numerous communities border wooded areas. Hom
estimates that communities in at least 30 townships from Cape
May to Long Branch are at risk from fire on adjacent wildlands.
"Wildland/urban interface fires are now the fastest
growing cause of property loss in the nation", said Hom.
The study will refine the National Fire Danger Rating System,
tailoring it to fit the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The Pine Barrens, as anyone who has visited there can see,
is an unusual ecosystem [see box, below]. Its sandy soil is
highly porous, giving it a low water-holding capacity. Woody
debris and tree litter that falls from the prevalent pine
and some oak trees is also dry and tends to decompose slowly.
The result is a build-up of volatile fuel, ready to burn at
the drop of a match or touch of an ember.
Rating Fire Danger: 2
Using towers and meteorology stations already on the ground
on the Silas Little, Hom and his associates will gather baseline
data on the climate and characteristics of the Barrens' ecosystem.
They will monitor changes that occur after prescribed burns.
They will estimate the potential fuel - living and dead -
and measure its moisture content. Useful models of these complex
interactions will be developed.
In addition, said Hom, the study will contribute to our understanding
of air pollution and climate change in the area.
The experimental station at the Silas Little will be fixed
up and brought back into full use for the study. Once an active
experimental forest, the site now contains some NERS experimental
plots and the Pinelands Field Station developed by Rutgers
for ecological research.
The study's benefits will extend further than the Pine Barrens,
said Hom. "The methods we develop can be applied to similar
regional fuel types to improve fire predictions there,"
he said. Both Long Island and Cape Cod have pine barrens ecosystems
similar to New Jersey's.
Quick Facts about the Pine Barrens:
- Covers 1.1 million acre
- Occupies 22% of New Jersey's land area
- Largest body of open space on Mid-Atlantic seaboard between
Richmond and Boston
- Designated America's first National Reserve
- 190,000 acres burned in 1963
- 1,000,000 acres burned in 1923