Firefighters working to combat the biggest natural threat to New Jersey: Wildfires

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Meteorologist Amy Freeze reports from the Pine Barrens on the risk of wildfires in New Jersey.

More threatening than a blizzard, a hurricane, a tornado, even a flood, wildfires top the list for the greatest natural hazard for our area, putting the East Coast ahead of the West Coast for a devastating wildfire.

We went to the New Jersey Pinelands to get a first-hand look at the risk. Half a million people live in the Pineland Reserve.

A lookout tower in Ocean County, 100 feet up, is used to spot at least 50 fires this season, of the average 1,500 that happen in the Pinelands each year.

"No pun intended but is this pretty much a hot zone?," we asked Division Forest Fire Warden Michael Achey. "Yes it is particularly dangerous, essentially the heart of the Pinelands Reserve. You are in the center of it," he said.

Fires are pinpointed using old school geometry.

"It's simply a compass," said Achey. "Another fire tower would provide what's known as a cross reading. Where more than two strings intersect, that's where the smoke is coming from. X marks the spot."

Rangers scan 8 hours a day for smoke - time is critical. 40 mph wicked west winds can have a fire out of control in 5 minutes.

The tower spotting method puts out thousands of wildfires but burning is inevitable, like what happened in April 2012 when a 1,000 acre fire threatened the town of Tabernacle, NJ.

Or the Memorial Day weekend 2002, a wildfire jumped the Garden State Parkway and then took almost a month to put out. The worst of all though, was "Black Saturday", April 1963 when 37 fires burned 193,000 acres, taking 7 lives and 400 structures.

Fire is not the only threat - the smoke from large fires can travel hundreds of miles.

"Absolutely the smoke, given the size of fire and the wind, it could make it to New York City," said Achey.

Stephen Pyne, the world's foremost wildfire expert, says the risk is growing: "Sooner or later, southern New Jersey will know the fire equivalent of Hurricane Sandy or worse," he said.

"The speed of these fires on flat ground is impressive even to me," said Assistant State Forest Fire Warden Steve Holmes, who explains it's the forest itself that makes the threat. "The Pine Barrens are here because of fire and they need fire to survive. It's a fire dependent species," he said.

If the weather is just right, its dry vegetation that acts as fuel, and the fire spreads very quickly. Equipment and experience are the defense. Airplanes and helicopters, even specially designed trucks designed to fight the blaze are better now than ever before.

But shutting off the fires quick may not be enough. A wildfire risk assessment compares the Pinelands to a tinderbox "to having an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey."

In fact - the East Coast appears more at risk that any other place in America.

"For us it's Pine Barrens and northern New Jersey and even parts of Long Island," we said. "Correct," said Holmes.

The best defense: awareness and hoping firefighters can get to the flames fast.

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firewildfirenew jersey newsNew Jersey
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