After ten years, the legislature passed, and the governor signed, the Prescribed Burn Act to provide greater opportunities for prescribed burning for ecological purposes. The statute recognizes the importance of prescribed fire for both reducing the risk of wildfire and to sustain natural ecology. It reduces the liability risks for private property owners who prescribe burn according to approved burn plans, and allows the state to do mechanical thinning or prescribed burn on in-holding lands on state property.
The statute benefits natural ecosystems that require fire for regeneration, homeowners by reducing fuel load on adjacent lands, and the state by reducing their time in conducting prescribed burns that will now be done by private land owners.
New Jersey lags far behind many other states that have passed prescribed burn bills over the past 10 years. These states include Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Pennsylvania. These state programs for prescribed burning have proven to be beneficial and have ultimately reduced the risk of wildfires.
Even with the bill’s passage, consideration must be given to the types of burns that are conducted by the NJFFS and private landowners. Prescribed fires, generally set by the state and private landowners to burn off fuel on the forest floor, are mostly conducted in a very narrow window of time in the winter (New Jersey’s prescribed burning season is limited to the period between October 1 and March 31) and are kept at very low intensity. Because these fires are designed to burn brush, leaves and needles but not to reach the canopy of the forest as a wildfire would do, they do not create forest canopy openings or the open, sandy or brushy successional habitats needed by many Pinelands species. The restrictive approach to prescribed fires does not serve the ecological functions needed to reproduce the effects of wildfires.
Fire Management Plan
The Albany Pine Bush Preserve in Albany, New York utilizes a fire management plan in which the goal is to control wildfires and to assure a balance between ecological management and public health and safety. They use fire to restore and maintain “viable pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, improve wildlife habitat, and manage fuel loads”. The fire plan for the 2000 acre preserve includes prescribed burns during the dormant and growing season in and around developed areas, so outside the window of burning that is currently used in New Jersey. The fire management plan and objectives in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve should be considered and techniques from their program must be utilized in New Jersey to better promote the ecological function of the Pinelands and other forests dependent upon a fire disturbance regime.
The Prescribed Burn Bill was sponsored by Senator Beach and Assemblymen Dancer and Conaway. Their actions will help move New Jersey in the right direction and it is a necessary first step to reduce wildfires, promote the ecological function of New Jersey forests, and enhance habitat for wildlife.