Home > Uncategorized > Where Were Those 900 “Wildfires” In NJ Last Year And What Were Impacts On Air Pollution, Public Health, And Property Damage?

Where Were Those 900 “Wildfires” In NJ Last Year And What Were Impacts On Air Pollution, Public Health, And Property Damage?

IF There Were 900 Wildfires In NJ, That Suggests Significant Air Pollution Risks

What Is DEP Doing To Reduce Risks?

I recently wrote about how DEP and Senator Smith were exaggerating wildfire risks as a pretext for “active management” of NJ’s forests and as a means of diverting public and press attention from more pressing risks.

But, I must say, although I have been living out west now for years and not in NJ, I was surprised by DEP Commissioner LaTourette’s testimony to the Senate that there were 900 wildfires last year in NJ. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that.

But, if DEP is going to manipulate the forestry debate with wildfire risks, then they must be held accountable to their own rhetoric.

Here’s how the US Forest Service defines “wildfire”: (notice that it includes “escaped prescribed fires”)

“an unplanned ignition caused by lightning, volcanoes, unauthorized, and accidental human-caused actions and escaped prescribed fires” (NWCG 2010).

That 900 number was picked up in today’s NJ Spotlight story:

Last year there were 900 wildfires in New Jersey, an amount described as shocking by DEP Commissioner Shawn 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!)

900 wildfires must produce a lot of air pollution and threats to residential and commercial development.

If so, it raises questions and suggests a few things:

1) Where are these wildfires occurring?

I”d like to see this data mapped. Knowing DEP, there are already GIS data layers, so a map should be very easy to produce.

2) Is DEP doing anything to restrict development in the areas of highest wildfire risks?

I am not aware of current significant restrictions on new development in high fire hazard areas.

DEP needs to ratchet down and restrict new development in the upcoming Climate PACT REAL land use rules.

Those rules must also include new requirements for fireproofing homes and buildings in high risk locations.

3) Why would DEP support legislation that exempted wildfires from air permit and air quality reporting?

Wildfires produce a lot of smoke, which includes dangerous fine particulates. In a compact densely populated state like NJ that already fails to meet clean air health based standards, addition of 900 wildfires is a significant air pollution problem.

But according to NJ DEP’s Clean Air Act State Implementation Plan (SIP) for ground level ozone, the air pollution from wildfires is no longer reported!

On 2/6/15, the Obama EPA:

eliminated the requirement for state and local agencies to report emissions from wildfire and prescribed fires (@ p. 10-3) https://nj.gov/dep/baqp/OA/Ozone%2075%20ppb%20AD-70%20RACT-2017%20PEI%20Final%2011-18-21.pdf

With 900 wildfires, why is DEP suppressing air pollution data?

Worse, the 2018  Prescribed Burn Act exempts “prescribed burns” from air pollution permit and compliance requirements and provides exemptions from liability for air pollution impacts (e.g. like sending you asthmatic kid to the hospital).

4) With so many people and so much property at risk from wildfire, why did DEP support legislation that eliminated liability for wildfires caused by poorly managed “prescribed burns”?

The Prescribed Burn Act, specifically see C.13:9-44.16 Prescribed burn deemed to be in public interest; immunity from liability, also exempts wildfires caused by prescribed burns that get out of control and damage people and property (e.g. your barn or house burns down or you animals killed).

5) How many “escaped prescribed fires” caused wildfires?

I’ve seen escaped prescribed burns in South Jersey. I also am aware that a DEP prescribed burn near Round Valley Reservoir a few years back resulted in a fire fighter fatality when a car driver was blinded by smoke. I’d like to see DEP data on these kinds of accidents, especially given the liability exemption under the Prescribed Burn Act.

6) Science suggests that prescribed burns and thinning don’t work to prevent wildfire

This is science on western forests, but I’ve not seen DEP’s similar science on eastern forests:

Abstract. There is a widespread view among land managers and others that the protected status of many forestlands in the western United States corresponds with higher fire severity levels due to historical restrictions on logging that contribute to greater amounts of biomass and fuel loading in less intensively managed areas, particularly after decades of fire suppression. This view has led to recent proposals—both administrative and legislative—to reduce or eliminate forest protections and increase some forms of logging based on the belief that restrictions on active management have increased fire severity. We investigated the relationship between protected status and fire severity using the Random Forests algorithm applied to 1500 fires affecting 9.5 million hectares between 1984 and 2014 in pine (Pinus ponderosa, Pinus jeffreyi) and mixed-conifer forests of western United States, accounting for key topographic and climate variables. We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading. Our results suggest a need to reconsider current overly simplistic assumptions about the relationship between forest protection and fire severity in fire management and policy.

It seems to me that DEP only wants to use the risks of wildfire to justify their “active management” forestry policies and practices, including a “prescribed burn” program.

But is also seems to me that DEP is doing nothing to reduce the risks and impacts of wildfire, like land use controls and restrictions on new development, fireproofing requirements for existing development, and more restrictions on harmful air pollution (aside from not conducting controlled burns on bad air days).

To get this wildfire data and maps, I sent the following OPRA public records request to DEP just now – let’s see if they can back it up:

“On February 10, 2022, Commissioner LaTourette testified to the Senate Environment Committee. In that testimony, he stated that there were 900 wildfires last year. The Commissioner’s factual claim was repeated today (2/15/22) in a NJ Spotlight story by Tom Johnson.

I request the following public records:

1) the data that the Commissioner used to support the Commissioner’s factual claim of 900 wildfires.

2) the location, size (acreage), duration, and date of each of these 900 wildfires.

3) 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.

4) the Department’s definition of “wildfire”.”


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