A big wildfire that began raging in Wharton State Forest on Sunday and was still burning as of late Wednesday, pushing smoke across southern New Jersey and into the Philadelphia suburbs, has burned about 13,500 acres, according to state officials.
As bad as that is, New Jersey has been scorched by even bigger fires on at least 16 occasions dating back to the 1920s. And some of those fires have resulted in deaths and widespread property damage.
Statistics from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, show this week’s fire — known as the Mullica River Wildfire — ranks as the 17th largest fire on record in the Garden State, based on the preliminary number of acres that have been burned.
These are the 20 biggest wildfires that have scorched the Pine Barrens and other wooded areas in New Jersey, according to DEP records.
New Jersey’s 20 largest wildfires
(1) 69,077 acres burned in late April 1963 in the biggest of 37 fires that consumed as much as 183,000 to 190,000 acres overall in the Pine Barrens. Known as “Black Saturday,” the wildfires killed seven people and destroyed about 400 buildings. The biggest blaze stretched from Pemberton Township in Burlington County east to the Garden State Parkway in Lacey Township in Ocean County, then south to Warren Grove in Stafford Township, Barnegat Township and Little Egg Harbor Township.
(2) 60,787 acres burned in early May 1930 from Hammonton in Atlantic County to the Bass River State Forest in Ocean County.
(3) 31,425 acres burned in late April 1963 from the Piney Hollow Preservation Area to Galloway Township in Atlantic County.
(4) 23,845 acres burned in late May 1936 from Barnegat Township in Ocean County south to Bass River Township in Burlington County, southeast to Stafford Township and Eagleswood Township in Ocean County.
(5) 20,800 acres burned in July 1954 in the so-called Chatsworth Wildfire, which extended from Tabernacle Township to Woodland Township in Burlington County, south to Friendship in Wharton State Forest.
(6) 20,671 acres burned in early April 1995 and is known as the Greenwood Wildfire because it scorched land in the Greenwood Forest Wildlife Management Area. This fire extended from Wheatland in Manchester Township to Bamber Lake in Lacey Township, southeast to Wells Mills in Ocean County.
(7) 17,497 acres burned in late April 1963 in a fire that extended from Prospertown Lake south to Colliers Mills in Jackson Township, then east to South Lakewood in Ocean County.
(8) 16,953 acres burned in late April 1926 in a fire that extended from Lakehurst to West Mantoloking in Ocean County and Lakewood, south to Silver Bay.
(9) 16,606 acres burned in late April 1960 in a fire that extended from Hammonton in Atlantic County east to Route 563, and Lower Forge south to Pleasant Mills.
(10) 15,986 acres burned in April 1971 in a fire that extended from Barnegat Township south to the Garden State Parkway in Little Egg Harbor Township, and Route 539 to Route 72 in Ocean County.
(11) 15,935 acres burned in late April 1946 in a fire that extended from Chatsworth in Burlington County east to Bass River State Forest, and Route 72 south to Oswego Lake in Penn State Forest.
(12) 15,592 acres burned in late April 1941 in a fire that extended from Jackson Township at Interstate 195 in Ocean County, south to the Lakehurst Air Force Base, and Brindle Lake east to Route 571.
(13) 15,550 acres burned in mid-May 2007 in a fire known as the Warren Grove Wildfire in southern Ocean and Burlington counties, destroying four homes, damaging 50 other homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents, according to a report from the Asbury Park Press. State officials said this fire extended from the Warren Grove Bombing Range east to the Garden State Parkway in Stafford, and Route 72 south to Stafford Forge.
(14) 14,992 acres burned in late April 1941 in a fire that extended from Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County east to Mays Landing, and the Mizpah section of Mays Landing to Maple Lake.
(15) 13,732 acres burned in late April 1963 in a fire that extended from Gravelly Run in Hamilton Township, Atlantic County, east to Pleasantville and south to Scullville in Egg Harbor Township.
(16) 13,510 acres burned in May 1935 in a fire that extended from Manchester Township at Buckingham in Ocean County, east to Cedar Crest and south to the Chamberlain Branch stream.
(17) 13,500 acres burned in June 2022 (this week) in Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens in Burlington and Atlantic counties in a huge wildfire that was believed to be sparked by an unattended campfire. The fire, known as the Mullica River Wildfire, extended from Route 206 in Hammonton east to Penn Swamp Road, and Atsion Village south to Pleasant Mills in Mullica Township. (Note: The number of burned acres is preliminary and subject to change.)
(18) 12,883 acres burned in late April 1963 in a fire that stretched from Mullica Township at Columbia Road in Atlantic County, east to the Mullica River, and Pleasant Mills Road south to Indian Cabin Creek.
(19) 12,526 acres burned in early April 1943 in a fire from Oswego Lake in Penn State Forest in Burlington County east to Route 539, and Sim Place south to Oswego Road.
(20) 11,813 acres burned in late April 1999 in Bass River State Forest in Ocean County, from Cutts Road east to the West Branch Bass River, and Andrews Road south to Stage Road/Route 679.
Some fires could benefit forests
Even though wildfires can pose a serious threat to buildings and residents living in or near wooded areas, occasional fires can actually help the ecosystem by regenerating the forests.
That’s one reason why the Forest Fire Service conducts controlled burns each year in the Pinelands.
“A lot of the trees in the Pinelands are fire dependent,” an agency official told NJ Advance Media in 2017. “The cones won’t open and release seeds unless they’ve gotten heat from fire.”
While the main goal is reducing the risk of future wildfires, the controlled burns clear the forest floor and allow new seeds to take root, the official said, adding that the fires control insect populations, help manage competing plant species and also improve wildlife habitat.
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Len Melisurgo may be reached at LMelisurgo@njadvancemedia.com.