Barnegat Leader

Forest Fire Strikes a Chord With Mayor Cirulli

Apr 19, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill A section of Route 72 in Barnegat was closed to traffic due to the wildfire.

The forest fire that originated in the Penn State Forest in Burlington County near the Barnegat Township border late last month brought back some unpleasant memories for Mayor Alfonso Cirulli.

He was also mayor in May 2007 when a blaze destroyed 17,000 acres and resulted in mass evacuations in the community. The March 29-30 wildfire burned 11,638 acres, making it the worst since the 2007 fire.

“In 2007, no one informed us about the fire,” said Cirulli. “We found out for ourselves once homes started burning in Pinewood Estates. This time the (fire) chief and I were texting each to to keep up with the latest developments.”

Cirulli said such fires “are the greatest threat to Barnegat.”

“Once that wind picks up, you can’t stop it,” he said. “It jumps roads and the results of it can be very devastating. You see footage in California where people not only lost their homes but also their lives.”

Cirulli said that unlike the 2007 event, this fire did not pose a threat to township residences since it was located in a remote area.

“But I still had a very restless night,” he said. “Even though it was contained pretty quickly, you never know because of the winds. I’m also very thankful it rained. That was a significant help. The State Forest Fire Service did an outstanding job.”

John Rieth, assistant warden for the forest fire service, said that at the height of the blaze, there were approximately 50 firefighters and 17 trucks from the state’s forest fire service working to contain the fire. A helicopter was utilized to help monitor any spreading. Sections of Route 72 were closed to traffic.

“It’s a pretty remote area, but we had some local companies on standby in case there was a threat to homes,” he said

In a press release, Gov. Phil Murphy said, “The Department of Environmental Protection (of which the forest fire service is part), the state police and our municipal partners did an outstanding job in controlling the wildfire to ensure the safety of our residents. I commend the brave men and women of the Forest Fire Service who responded quickly to minimize the spread of the fire’s expansion through the Pinelands.”

DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe surveyed the area Tuesday morning. In a statement, she said, “This fire could have been much worse had it not been for the critical work the forest fire service does throughout the year using prescribed burns to eliminate fuels that can cause wildfires.”

She said prescribed burns help reduce forest fire risk before prime wildfire season, which is usually April or May. At that time of year, fallen leaves, branches and twigs are abundant. Humidity can be low, and the weather is often warm and windy. Those conditions, coupled with a lack of new leaf growth, make forest debris more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sun.

Rieth said despite plentiful precipitation this winter and spring, that did little to prevent dry conditions from forming quickly.

“The soils have very low water retention,” he said. “After rainfall, it makes the soils dry up in 24 hours.”

Rieth said the cause of the fire remains under investigation and said the forest fire service is seeking the public’s help in providing information about the fire. All tips will remain confidential and may be called in to State Police Sgt. Shaun Georgeson at the Tuckerton barracks, 609-296-3132. The state fire marshal, state park police, New Jersey State Police and the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office are assisting the forest fire service in the investigation.

— Eric Englund

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