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GUEST OPINION: Forest Fire in Lakewood and Brick - Warning that Things Will Get Worse

Megan Steele | NJ Sierra Club


A brush fire that broke out Sunday afternoon in Lakewood, NJ grew into a major forest fire by Sunday evening. The fire had damaged 30 homes and buildings and forced the Garden State Parkway to temporarily close from Exit 82 to Exit 91. As of Monday morning, Route 70 to the Garden State Parkway was still closed. The fire had spread to 170 acres. One firefighter has been reported as critically injured. 


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“Our thoughts go out to those who have been injured or whose homes have been damaged from the fire. Although the fire started small, it has grown over 170 acres and at least one firefighter is critically injured. Unfortunately, climate impacts and the environmental impacts from overdevelopment in Lakewood and Brick made this fire worse. The woods in this area are surrounded by development, and this shows that small fires can grow quickly in these areas,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Overpumping of the aquifer, paving over the land, rising temperatures, and failing to remove brush or manage the forest in these areas led to this fire growing. We are going to see fires get worse as our climate gets dryers and warmer and we see more development in this area.”


The New Jersey Forest Fire Service is investigating the origin of the fire. They have stated that it was not from a prescribed burn. Two mixed-use commercial buildings have been completely destroyed by the fire, but no residential homes have been reported as “substantially damaged” so far.


“This fire has damaged nearly 30 homes and forced people to evacuate their homes. It even closed the Garden State Parkway yesterday for a few hours, and is still impacting people’s morning commute today. The state needs to do more to prevent serious wildfires. This includes stopping any unnecessary development in this area that would put people in harm’s way. There are thousands of people who live in South Jersey near the Pinelands that are potentially at risk if there is a major fire,” said Tittel. “There is overdevelopment in and around the Pinelands, including places like Lakewood. This not only has big impacts to Barnegat Bay but also to the environment. As the woodlands get surrounded by development, it makes the conditions even worse for forest fires like this one.”


A 2016 article in Rolling Stone warned that America’s worst forest fire could happen in New Jersey. The environmental conditions and location of the Pinelands, ongoing development and pipelines all play a role in that threat.


“The Pinelands are surrounded by development, creating the prospect of a catastrophic fire as outlined in a Rolling Stone article in 2016 that said we could suffer the nation’s worst forest fire. That article laid out a worst-case scenario, a wind-blown blaze in dry conditions quickly cutting through the region. That scenario becomes more likely if we continue to over-pump the aquifers, dry out our wetlands and forests and put more people in harm’s way with more pipelines like the SRL. This fire burned through 170 acres of forest. If there had been a gas pipeline going through there, the results could have been catastrophic,” said Tittel. “It’s like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun; it’s only a matter of time one of these forest fires turns into a true disaster.”


Two weeks ago, the DEP announced that the State Forest Fire Service is setting prescribed burns around New Jersey to help reduce forest undergrowth, vegetation and other materials that have the potential to fuel wildfires. Controlled burns are generally conducted during late winter months because of predictable weather conditions and to reduce the amount of smoke produced. Prescribed burn season usually lasts until mid-March.


“This week, we saw temperatures in the 70’s. Warmer winter weather, overdevelopment, and overpumping of aquifers is leading to longer and more damaging forest fire seasons. This is concerning as the state moves forward with prescribed burn season because it is too warm and too dry. As climate impacts continue to get worse, we need to stop building in high-risk areas for forest fires that the Forest Service has identified,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The more we keep encroaching into the Pinelands with overdevelopment, the more people and property will be at risk.”