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Fire in the Pinelands

Fire in the Pinelands

Policy Notes: April 2023

Playing (and Living) with Fire in the Pinelands. ‘Policy Notes’ are designed to update the public on the activities of the Pinelands Commission, which have been summarized by Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff who attend all public meetings of the Commission.

May 5, 2023


You can read Pinelands Commission meeting agendas and minutes on their website, or watch the live stream of their meetings on their YouTube channel.

Farmers and fire wardens alike have welcomed the April May showers. Recent downpours are coming on the heels of New Jersey’s peak fire season, which occurs every year between mid-march and May. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection explains that this is due to a combination of warming weather, decreased humidity, and higher winds. The concern was particularly high this year relative to others due to the unusually mild and snow-less winter that we just experienced. A fire that broke out in Manchester on April 11 consumed 3,900 acres of wooded area.

The New Jersey Pinelands are actually adapted to wildfires—however, the people and buildings scattered throughout this region are not! Pine barrens need to burn episodically to maintain the integrity of this ecosystem, but humans have altered the way that these fires burn. Some of these changes have happened incidentally as human development has fragmented forest habitats, introduced invasive species of plants (changing the fuel composition), and increased opportunities for wildfires to start. Humans also actively alter the progression of forest fires by suppressing them, especially to protect human development that is built in harms’ way. Thankfully, New Jersey has made strides towards more closely mimicking natural cycles of wildfires by performing prescribed burns (see the Prescribed Burn Act of 2018). Prescribed burns can be conducted proactively in weather conditions that make it easier to contain the fires—think low winds and low temperatures. This doesn’t eliminate the chance of an unplanned fire, but it does rein in the intensity of these fires when they do occur.

What is the role of the Pinelands Commission in all of this? This state agency determines where and how development can occur in the Pinelands region. The balancing act that the Commission must perform “in order to protect life and property from catastrophic forest fires and to ensure the maintenance of the Pinelands forest ecosystems” is described in pages 224- 226 of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP). It requires that buildings be constructed from fire-resistant materials, with specific requirements for building openings, chimneys, and roofs. Large developments proposed to be built in fire-prone areas are required to create a 200’ fuel break perimeter in which shrubs, understory trees, and ground cover are ‘selectively removed’—akin to the ‘low and from below’ thinning that the NJDEP is performing in Bass River State Forest. This has been the strategy for many years, but what should be done now that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of forest fires?

The Climate Change Committee of the Pinelands Commission has been considering how it can incorporate climate change into the CMP. One of the priorities that this committee established was to identify areas of the Pinelands where current zoning encourages development—but probably shouldn’t in the face of climate change. This includes properties that will be at an increased risk of wildfire or flooding. Back in 2018, researchers from NASA and the University of Alabama in Huntsville helped the Pinelands Commission map fire risk and identify “Optimal Regions within New Jersey’s Pine Barrens Forest for Urban Development Based on Wildfire Risk and the Wildland-Urban Interface Theory.”  At the April 19th meeting of the climate committee, Commission staff explained the methodology that they would be using to combine this map with other climate data; based on this GIS analysis, they will recommend management area boundaries that should be changed. We will expect to see the results of this analysis at the July 19 meeting of the committee, and hope that this will lead to CMP amendments shortly after.

Figure 1: Image from “poster PDF” provided on website: https://develop.larc.nasa.gov/2018/spring/NewJerseyUrban.html

In the meantime, the Pinelands Commission must examine fire risk to proposed developments on a case-by-case basis. For example, one recent application that commission staff has reviewed is for a large housing development requesting a waiver from the 200’ buffer mentioned above—it is reasonable to grant it in this case because the context of the development has changed significantly. The lot in question is in a regional growth area that was previously surrounded by forests that have since been developed, thus lowering the fire risk to this particular plot. According to the Wildland-Urban Interface Theory, infill development like this is less risky than building right next to forests. The developer in Pemberton proposing to build an age-restricted community in the middle of the Pole Branch Forest incorrectly claimed that such a development would reduce the risk of wildfire by converting natural lands to homes. It is important to codify regulations around threats like this into land-use rules so that decisions that are consequential to residents and the ecosystem are not left to the discretion of individual decision-makers.

Other Commission Updates

Black Run Watershed management area redesignation

Similar to the mapping and redesignation process described above for climate change, the Pinelands Commission performed a thorough review of an individual watershed to consider how development patterns may be adjusted to maximize the ecological integrity of the watershed. Pursuant to this, the Pinelands Commission is now working to redesignate 2,700 acres of land that is currently rural development area (RDA) to a more restrictive forest area (FA) management region. This will effectively reduce the sprawling rural development that can occur in the watershed and concentrate this into denser developments on the outskirts.

Pinelands Commission to put expiration dates on applications

Everyone has them: unfinished projects that you keep meaning to finish, but never get around to. These can linger indefinitely until the decision is made to clean-house. A similar thing happens at the Pinelands Commission, where applicants start an application, but don’t return to it until decades later. While final approvals for projects come with expiration dates, this is not the case for preliminary documents issued by the commission like the COF: ‘Certificate of Filing’. This comes from the first step in the application process to have a project approved by the Pinelands Commission; it is essentially a preliminary review of your plans, in which the commission will highlight potential conflicts that they recommend you address before submitting your final application. While these never-expiring documents do not constitute approvals in and of themselves, there have been multiple instances of developers being angered by the revelation that something may have changed in the decades since they last worked on that application—for example: new stormwater management requirements may be in effect, or the commission may have received evidence of threatened and endangered animal species on the property. Putting an expiration date on the COF not only allows the Commission to clean-house but hopefully will also remove this potential source of confusion (and procrastination) for applicants.

More PDC’s required from non-residential development

Another ordinance was passed to require PDC redemption for non-residential development, this time in Monroe Township. An area that was zoned for residential use is proposed to become a warehouse with 1.6+ million square feet of space. This change is coming after many years of the township trying to attract other development for the property. While it is not ideal to have yet another warehouse in the Pinelands, at least this non-residential development will be supporting the PDC program, with an estimated $1.4 Million going toward land preservation. For a more thorough explanation of this trend, read last month’s blog post.

Commission Appointments

Two seats on the Commission are still open, both of which are reserved for gubernatorial nominees. One nominee, Dr. Jessica Sanchez, has been moving slowly through the political hurdles that must be crossed before finally being sworn into the Commission. Having received approval from senators from her district, we are hopeful that her nomination will finally be considered by the full Senate judiciary committee when the legislature wraps up its budget hearings this month. Governor Murphy has yet to announce a nominee for the second vacancy.

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