Ocean County Press Release
WITH THE approach of forest fire season, Ocean County will again house an air tanker operated by the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service at the Ocean County Airport, Berkeley Township.
"The many upgrades that we have completed at our airport off Route 530 are making it a reliable base of operations for the state Forest Fire Service during forest fire season," said Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari, who serves as liaison to the airport. "We are pleased to provide the forest fire service with a state of the art facility where they can house their tanker and easily access areas that may be affected by a forest fire."
The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders is scheduled to enter into an agreement with the state Forest Fire Service allowing it to base its plane at the airport from mid-April to mid-May.
"That time of year is the height of forest fire season," said Freeholder John P. Kelly, Director of Law and Public Safety. "We appreciate the efforts of the state Forest Fire Service and all of our volunteer fire companies in making certain our residents and visitors are kept from harms' way during this time."
Vicari noted that the Forest Fire Service returned to the Ocean County Airport after the County opened the crosswind runway in September 2014 creating a safer airport.
"The safety of the pilots using the airport is of the utmost importance to the County," Vicari said. "The airport is used for more than just private planes. It serves an important role when it comes to public safety, and housing aircraft that are used by public safety agencies."
Vicari said the crosswind runway provides pilots with safer landing and takeoff alternatives during adverse wind conditions.
"Because the worst forest fires usually coincide with high winds, prior to completion of the crosswind runway, the Forest Fire Service had to cancel previous missions due to strong crosswinds," he said.
Vicari said Ocean County has seen its share of large and dangerous brush fires.
He noted that shortly after the completion of the crosswind runway, a major forest fire broke out that threatened several neighborhoods just a few miles from the airpark.
"Personnel from the Forest Fire Service attended a Freeholder meeting afterwards and credited the use of the crosswind runway with helping the fire service in its efforts to save many homes from destruction," he said. "We are pleased to offer this invaluable service to the Forest Fire Service."
Last year, while based at the airport, the air tanker was used to respond to 11 forest fires, delivering more than 15,000 gallons of water to the fire sites.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the peak wildfire season in New Jersey typically begins in middle to late March and runs through late spring, when the weather tends to be dry, windy and warmer. This also is the time of year when forest canopies and undergrowth have yet to leaf out, making forest debris more susceptible to the drying effects of wind and sunshine.
Because of the types of trees and shrubs it supports, the sprawling Pinelands region of southern New Jersey is particularly susceptible to wildfires and is typically the focus of much of the prescribed burning activity conducted by the Forest Fire Service.
The DEP noted prescribed burns take place through the end of March, conditions permitting. These burns are generally conducted during the winter – especially toward the late-winter months – to minimize the amount of smoke produced, and when weather conditions tend to be safer for controlled fires.
"Prescribed burning is an important tool in keeping our forests and other wildlands safe and healthy," said Bill Edwards, Chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "These burns are conducted only under exacting conditions by highly trained personnel. By burning them away now, we can reduce the risk of these materials serving as tinder for wildfires later in the year. This practice also improves the overall ecological health of our forests and grasslands."
In 2016, the Forest Fire Service responded to 1,065 wildfires, 75 percent of which were a quarter-acre or smaller. The largest was a 464-acre fire in Bass River State Forest in Burlington County.
"This is also a good time to remind residents and visitors to be particularly vigilant when driving or out in the woods to properly discard any smoking materials or not engage in this kind of activity," Kelly said. "So many forest and brush fires are caused by human error or carelessness. They can easily be prevented."
Vicari noted anyone convicted of purposely starting a forest or brush fire faces serious criminal penalties.
The airport is located on 420 acres in Berkeley Township about five miles west of Toms River. A precision approach facility, it features a 6,000 foot runway and accommodates various aircraft, including private airplanes, small corporate jets, the state Forest Fire Service planes, the Civil Air Patrol and Emergency Services aircraft.