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GUEST OPINION: Is A Fire Alarm Going Off in NJ

West Coast Forest Fires 

NJ Sierra Club

The West Coast is facing unprecedented forest fires that are still growing uncontrollably. Firefighters in California, Oregon, and Washington have been battling multiple fires throughout the state for nearly a month as hot, dry weather has fueled flames and created tinderbox conditions. More than 16,750 firefighters were struggling with 29 major wildfires across the state as of Sunday, according to CalFire. These wildfires have burned more than five million acres, destroyed homes and left at least 26 people dead. 6a00d8341bf7d953ef0264e2dc1689200d-350wi

“The forest fires happening in California, Oregon, and Washington show the dire reality of a warming planet. Over 5 million acres have been burnt, that’s almost the size of New Jersey. Warmer and drier temperatures and soil are some one of the main reasons why these fires are spreading uncontrollably. Our prayers and support go out to the families who are impacted and the firefighters working 24-7 to contain these wildfires. What is happening on the west coast, however, should be a fire bell alarm going off to the Murphy Administration,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “New Jersey just hit its warmest July ever this year. Warmer temperatures, drier soil, and invasive species killing off trees are a recipe for major forest fires in New Jersey, especially in susceptible areas like the Pinelands.”

President Trump’s fossil fuel policies and polluter payouts have caused havoc and worsened the impacts of the wildfires that have spread to areas in Oregon and Washington now. His administration has continuously denied climate change and real science.

“The combination of warmer temperatures and Trump’s rollbacks to nearly every rule dealing with fossil fuels has created a fireball disaster. Trump has pulled out of the Paris Accord while going after CAFE standards, Obama’s Clean Power Plan and gutting rules to reduce methane emissions. He has called climate change a hoax and put a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA. The consistent attacks on real science and denial of climate change from the Trump Administration have ignited the west coast, burnt down thousands of homes, caused thousands to evacuate, and casted an orange sky filled with dangerous smoke,” said Tittel. “Trump’s forest management policies of raking will only dry out the soil and increase the spread of fires faster.”

A report released by Rutgers University this month found that this summer has been the second-hottest summer on record in New Jersey. The average temperature from June through August was 75.3 degrees, second only to 2010’s record-setting average temperature.

“Forest fires are common and can happen here in New Jersey. New Jersey’s temperatures have already increased by 3.5 degrees and will continue to go up. New Jersey is the 2ndfastest warming state in the country and this past July was its warmest month on record this summer. We are heading into a dry spell after a warm summer which can lead to serious problems,” said Tittel. “Not only are forest fires dangerous, but the smoke that comes with it can be deadly. Air quality in areas of California and Oregon are the worst in the world right now. Smoke from fires in New Jersey would be a one-two punch to our lungs, especially when some of  our counties already have bad air quality.”  

The Pinelands is susceptible to climate change and invasive species like the southern Pine Beetle. In May, a brush fire in the pines of Camden County burned 2,100 acres. In April of last year, a wildfire engulfed nearly 12,000 acres of the Pinelands making it one of the largest in recorded state history. The northern New Jersey Pinelands, and pitch pine stands in the New England states with similar structural characteristics, are particularly at risk of infestation as the southern pine beetle continues to move northward, according to researchers.

“Some fires may be naturally occurring and from lightning strikes. However, lighting has become more and more frequent in California and in New Jersey. Climate change, heat waves, over-pumping groundwater, dried out soil, and the threat of invasive species killing tries has led to dangerous conditions that are a threat to the public. What is happening out west can happen here, and the population living around the Pinelands, like in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and South Jersey are at risk of major fires,” said Tittel.  New Jersey needs a better plan with the constant threat of fire in areas like the Pinelands.  If we want to preserve our precious forests, we need to keep people out of those areas. We need better use of maps that identify high-risk areas where developments or fossil fuel pipelines should not go. DEP also needs to make sure the Pines are protected from harmful species like the emerald ash borer, the southern pine beetle, spotted lantern flies, and the gypsy moth.”

Climate change is already damaging the planet and new reports show that we are way behind in dealing with it. Last year our oceans and surface air temperatures were the hottest on record.

“Even though there hasn’t been a forest fire in the Highlands Preservation Area since the 60’s, we need to take necessary precaution to avoid one. The trees there are getting older and dying and threats of invasive species are increasing. This area is also surrounded by development. In order to avoid the catastrophic and deadly wildfires happening in the west coast, New Jersey needs to limit development in areas prone to fires,” said Tittel.

The authorities have warned for days not to expect relief soon, saying that even though winds could help disperse some of the smoke that has smothered cities like San Francisco and Oakland, it could also dry out brush and fan flames, reversing the progress firefighters have made. The winds, caused by a slow-moving storm system off the coast of Oregon, were expected to last most of the week and could push smoke to Montana, Idaho and even Canada, meteorologists said.

“Even though the Trump Administration has completely failed to protect us from climate change impacts, we have a governor who supports science and believes in climate change. What is happening on the west coast could happen in New Jersey, especially with high record temperatures we have experienced in the past year. We need to take action now. The state needs to do better hazard planning when it comes to forest fires. New Jersey has updated its fire maps but we have not integrated them into planning by keeping development and buildings out of fire prone areas and creating plenty of buffers for housing. New Jersey needs to limit development in fire prone areas, prevent over pumping of its aquifers, stop the logging in Sparta Mountain, and make sure people are not put in harm’s way,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.