New Jersey is on the verge of approving more controlled burns of underbrush on forest floors.
The goal is to prevent major forest fires and help ecosystems that depend on fire as part of the natural cycle.
Lawmakers passed a bill last week that promotes more prescribed burning in the state. That technique, largely carried out by the state, intentionally sets small areas of forest floor ablaze to burn the dead leaves, branches, grass and pine cones that could fuel a major forest fire if one broke out.
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"The risk we face in terms of catastrophic wildfires in New Jersey is in large part due to the fact that we have long suppressed fire," said Kelly Mooij, an official with the New Jersey Audubon Society. "Fire is a normal and necessary process in our forests, particularly in the Pinelands."
She said being too restrictive of fire prevents important ecological functions on which some plants and wildlife, such as those that dominate the Pinelands, depend. Fire stimulates new growth, coaxing some pine cones to release their seeds. It opens up gaps in forest canopies to help species on the ground, and clears sandy areas that provide a home to the pine snake.
Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the state does not carry out enough prescribed burns, due to staffing, funding and other concerns.
"The restrictive approach to prescribed fires in New Jersey means very little forest gets burned, which does not provide sufficient protection for nearby residents, and the way it gets burned does not serve the ecological functions needed to reproduce the effects of wildfires," she said. "Furthermore, private landowners are hesitant to contract prescribed burns on their properties due to insurance requirements. This piece of legislation helps to address these issues and gets us closer to where we need to be."
The bill provides for a certification process for prescribed burn managers, a notification process for land-owners and a liability shield for prescribed burn managers and owners who follow the proper techniques in controlled burns.
It establishes procedures to be followed in carrying out controlled burns and authorizes a division of the state Department of Environmental Protection to conduct controlled burns on any land deemed to be in danger of wildfire.
The certification program for burn managers includes safety, the legal aspects of prescribed burning, fire behavior, prescribed burning tactics, smoke management, environmental effects and preparation of prescribed burn plans.
Ten other states have passed similar legislation
The bill is awaiting Gov. Chris Christie's signature.