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Murphy DEP Caught Blowing Smoke On Wildfires

DEP Commissioner LaTourette’s Exaggerated Wildfire Risk Warning Belied By Data

Average NJ “wildfire” is less than 2 acres in size – number declining by 33%

DEP’s Pathetic Exaggeration and News Management Exposed

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

–Captain Renault, from the classic scene in Casablanca (1942)

[Update below]

Back on February 10, 2022, DEP Commissioner Latourette testified to the Senate Environment Committee that he was “shocked” by wildfires in NJ.

Just before that, Senate Environment Committee chairman Bob Smith set the stage for that gross exaggeration: (listen, starting at time 2:05):

Our forests are at risk. I’m sure you’ve seen the footage, two or three years ago, of half the country burning down. It wasn’t just California, it was really like from the center of the country – west. And we could be in that same situation. And you also need healthy, sustainable forests so that we can mitigate the impacts of global climate change.

I was extremely skeptical of the wildfire remarks of Commissioner Latourette:

How do you waltz into a legislative hearing and casually drop that kind of bomb, with no supporting evidence, and get zero questioning from stunned legislators?

900 wildfires in such a small and densely populated urbanized state? Really? If so, that is shocking. Is DEP counting backyard grills, roadside grasslands, and dumpster fires? (or maybe book burnings! – that’s snark!)

I called out that grossly exaggerated risk and warned that DEP was using wildfire risk in a coordinated campaign with Senator Smith as a pretext to continue to “actively manage” (mismanage) NJ forests:

So, be forewarned.

Trenton policymakers will try to use the fear of wildfire to justify continuing mismanagement of NJ’s forests.

I will go into additional detail in future posts. There is a lot of scientific disagreement that active management techniques are the solution to wildfire prevention or adaptation to climate change:

In order to expose DEP’s exaggeration scheme and their failure to even properly prevent and manage wildfires, I filed an OPRA public records request on February 15. I requested the following data:

  • the data that the Commissioner used to support the Commissioner’s factual claim of 900 wildfires
  • the location, size (acreage), duration, and date of each of these 900 wildfires.
  • Reports, data, or documents submitted to the Commissioner regarding the existence and suppression and prevention of these wildfires, submitted from January 1, 2020 until the present.
  • the Department’s definition of “wildfire”.”

DEP’s legal deadline for responding to that OPRA request is 5 pm TODAY.

So, it is no surprise that DEP held a press briefing YESTERDAY to be sure to spin NJ Spotlight’s lame reporter Jon Hurdle, so he could publish their spin today, BEFORE I got the data and exposed them.

But it gets much worse.

DEP was not merely engaged in cynical news management to do damage control and get out in front of a “bad news” story. That is standard operating procedure at DEP now.

In addition to exposing DEP’s scheme to exaggerate wildfire risks, there are serious flaws in DEP’s wildfire program and recent amendments to NJ law that very few people know anything about and would be outraged to learn.

I wrote about them on February 15:

  • Where are these wildfires occurring?
  • Is DEP doing anything to restrict development in the areas of highest wildfire risks?
  • Why did DEP support legislation that exempted wildfires from air permit and air quality reporting?
  • With 900 wildfires, why is DEP suppressing air pollution data?
  • Why did DEP support legislation that eliminated liability for wildfires caused by poorly managed “prescribed burns”?
  • How many “escaped prescribed fires” caused wildfires?
  • Science suggests that prescribed burns and thinning don’t work to prevent wildfire

DEP wanted to keep all those flaws and controversies quiet and of course lapdog transcriber Jon Hurdle did not report them.

Hurdle’s NJ Spotlight story today did NOT respond to one of those critical questions. Not one.

Once again, instead of writing a critical story to hold DEP accountable, Hurdle provided a platform for DEP to spin and evade critical issues.

And, failing to follow his own data, he completely mis-framed the story, from “DEP exaggerates wildfire risks” to “DEP not doing enough prescribed burns” (for a negligible risk!). Another page in the upside down Orwellian world of NJ Spotlight reporting!

But even the data Hurdle did report exposed DEP Commissioner LaTourette’s “shock” as a gross exaggeration.

It turns out that wildfires were – as I suspected – grossly exaggerated by Commissioner LaTourette:

1) They are nothing like what the public thinks of as a “wildfire” in terms of size and intensity. The average was LESS THAN 2 ACRES IN SIZE:

New Jersey last year saw nearly 1,000 wildfires, damaging 1,972 acres.

2) “Wildfires” are not only very, very, very, very small in size, but declining  in number:

the exact cause of the decline has not been clearly identified, but said the annual total has fallen to around 1,000 from a previous average of some 1,500.

So far this year, there have been 88 fires, most of them small, over 67 acres [My Note: that’s LESS THAN 1 ACRE average size!)

To summarize:

1) DEP was exposed grossly exaggerating the risks of wildfire to justify “active management” of NJ’s forests

2) DEP Commissioner LaTourette’s credibility is shot.

3) The NJ wildfire prevention and response law and DEP program are seriously flawed and the public is totally unaware of that because “news outlets” like NJ Spotlight get spun by DEP and fail to report the facts and the law.

[Update: 3:15 pm, EST –  DEP just sent me this notice that they need more time – they had enough time to spoon feed selective data to NJ Spotlight, but not answer the tough questions I posed:

Dear Mr. Wolfe,

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Record Access received your Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request on 2/15/22 to which the above tracking number was assigned. As such, the seven (7) business day deadline (due date) to respond to your request is 2/25/22.

Your request requires additional time beyond the due date because of the time required to search for the responsive records. Your request requires an extension of time until 3/4/22.

Yeah, right.

[Update – 3/3/22 – DEP replied to my OPRA on 3/1. I will be writing specifically. For now, they asserted OPRA exemption under “deliberative privilege” for any Reports, emails, documents, maps, etc. They provided no maps, but gave “wildfire” location data by longitude and latitude, which is useless to me. The overwhelming majority of the fires (75%??) were only 0.25 acres! The response times seemed excessive, e.g. 12 hours at a 1/4 of an acre fire! More to follow. ~~~ end update]

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