TRENTON — The cause of a fire that consumed about 98 acres of Wharton State Forest between Tuesday and Wednesday is still under investigation, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service said.
The Maple Branch Fire was the second major forest blaze of late. Last month’s Mullica River Fire burned about 13,500 acres, making it the state’s largest wildfire since 2007.
Extensive dryness throughout the state’s woods has helped power the fires. Both fires happened out of spring, when wildfires in New Jersey are at their peak season.
“Usually, the month of April is when we see the highest fire activity and our most significant wildfires,” John Cecil, assistant commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites, said Wednesday during a news conference. “That’s because the conditions at that time of year are conducive to fire start and fire spread.”
The Maple Branch Fire was first spotted by a Batsto fire spotter about 10 a.m. Tuesday, Forest Fire Service Division Fire Warden Shawn Judy said Wednesday.
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Firefighters performed a backfiring maneuver to help contain the flames, the Forest Fire Service said.
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Batsto Village and its surrounding hiking trails were closed Tuesday morning but have since reopened, the Forest Fire Service said Wednesday.
Buttonwood Campground also was shut down Tuesday, the Forest Fire Service said. However, Bulltown Road reopened late Tuesday, according to the Forest Fire Service’s Twitter account.
Backfiring is when firefighters intentionally set a separate fire to consume fuel in a larger blaze’s path. This is done to stop the fire from spreading or to change its direction, the Forest Fire Service said.
Seven residential structures were considered to be in danger as a result of the fire, but the alert was later lifted once the flames were further contained.
No one living inside the buildings needed to be evacuated, Judy said.
Structures are no longer threatened by the blaze, the Forest Fire Service said.
The Maple Branch forest fire in Wharton State Forest was fully contained by Wednesday morning.
No injuries were reported. Firefighters will remain in the area to continue strengthening containment lines, the Forest Fire Service said.
The combination of a dry forest floor and gusty winds helped spark the fire. Winds gusted in the 20 mph range while the 10-hour fuel moisture — the amount of water in objects of a quarter-inch to an inch in diameter, such as tree branches — was low as well. Relative humidity values over 50% likely prevented the fire from spreading further.
New Jersey’s wildlife has been enduring protracted dryness, leaving the woods susceptible to wildfires, state Fire Warden Greg McLaughlin said Wednesday.
In North Jersey, the Forest Fire Service is ordering campfire restrictions at multiple recreational areas. Campfires will not be permitted to burn on the ground and must be inside a raised, controlled container, such as a charcoal grill, McLaughlin said.
When wildfire-prone conditions continue in New Jersey, each of the state’s 21 watchtowers is staffed with a spotter. If necessary, surveillance groups will comb the areas as an extra precaution, McLaughlin said.
“Our goal is to always respond quickly and keep the fire small,” McLaughlin said.
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The temporary rule comes after eight wildfires have been fought up north. No restrictions are anticipated for South Jersey, but that could change if conditions call for them, officials said.
Last month’s Mullica River Fire is still being investigated as well, Judy said.
The fire is believed to have started as a campfire. Judy could not comment on new details in its investigation, other than that officials are continuing to follow leads.
A primitive campground along the Mullica River was burnt over by the blaze, consumed entirely by flames. No large structures are at the campsite, which is why it’s considered a primitive area, Cecil said.
That campground has since reopened after trees were cleared, Cecil said.
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