A week after a wildfire scorched more than 13,000 acres of Wharton State Forest, satellite imagery has revealed the extent of the damage.
About 10% of this sprawling state forest is now slashes of brown and gray scars among the green canopy of pines from the June 19 wildfire that scorched woods along the Mullica River.
It was an unusually dry Sunday morning — the humidity was unusually low for June —when an illegal fire starting burning out of control. At 10 a.m., firefighters in a watch tower by Batsto Village spotted the smoke. Around the same time, different canoers and kayakers began calling authorities with similar reports.
By 11 a.m. satellites picked up the smoke near the intersection of Basto Fireline Road and Sleepy Creek Road. By then, the first Forest Fire Service personnel were on site fighting the flames, which spread across 50 acres. They attempted a “direct attack” approach, Greg McLaughlin, chief of the forest fire service, said in a recap of events earlier this month. Direct attack typically involves wetting the forest.
But the narrow, sandy forest roads and the fire’s location deep in the woods made the approach difficult and travel slow for firefighters, McLaughlin said. Gusty winds worked against their efforts and propelled the flames farther out of firefighters’ reach, he said.
Satellite imagery shows the fire burned across multiple areas, an indication that conditions changed rapidly after the fire began.
“This fire was sending burning embers, causing spot fires, long distances,” the fire chief said. “And then this causes our resources to effectively have to scatter about and try to track down these spot fires, as we call them, so that the fire doesn’t continue to grow larger in size.”
The fire conditions weren’t particularly onerous – winds were breezy but not strong, temperatures were in the 70s and the area had received rain just days earlier. But one factor stood out – the air was bone dry.
June 19 was one of the least humid summer days in recent memory. Dewpoints across most of the state didn’t leave the mid-30s – which when combined with abundant sunshine can quickly leach moisture out of the soil and plant life.
“That’s exceedingly dry air,” said David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist at Rutgers University.
By 4 p.m., the fire had grown to 100 acres. By 7 p.m., 300 acres.
Firefighters used an indirect attack, attempting to burn fuels in the fire’s pathway to starve its advance and use the Mullica River as a natural firebreak, McLaughlin said. At the same time, a helicopter dumped 325-gallon buckets of water from Atsion Lake onto the flames, he said.
Yet, spot fires erupted on the other side of the Mullica River, the fire chief said.
“We were not able to hold it on the east side of the Mullica River,” he said.
The night, the winds shifted direction, pushing the flames south toward Batsto Village, a historic Pinelands town.
It grew seven-fold overnight, ballooning to more than 2,100 acres by the morning of June 20. Roads were closed and local firefighters set up support around more than a dozen structures lining the fires edges.
The fire exploded throughout the day, burning southeast across Wharton State Forest, aided by northwestern winds. Smoke poured into the nearby Atlantic City area, lowering air quality. By the day’s end 12,000 acres were burned, but firefighters made considerable progress.
By the morning of June 21, the winds shifted. People in Brick and points further north woke up to hazy conditions and the smell of smoke. But further south, firefighters had nearly won the fight.
The fire was largely brought under control late on June 21 after burning more than 13,500 acres. Satellite imagery shows the fire line ends within 500 meters of Basto Village.
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The fire is likely to rank among the 20 largest in state history. It is the largest forest fire in New Jersey since the Warren Grove fire burned more than 15,000 acres in 2007.
“We were lucky that we had no injuries, no structure damage,” McLaughlin said.
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-557-5701.