Dry and windy conditions helped the Mullica River Fire in Wharton State Township rapidly spread since it began on Sunday morning. Wind conditions on Sunday also made it difficult for helicopters to drop water on the fire. Paradoxically, officials said that conditions along the Mullica River were dry enough for the fire to cross the river twice, but too wet for firefighting equipment to reach the fire.
“(Sunday) was the kind of day that favors rapid fire spread with strong, gusty northwest winds,” Jonathan O’Brien, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, told NJ Advance Media.
As of Monday evening, the fire was 70% contained, thanks in part to less-windy conditions. Two state roads were still closed Monday, and protections were in place for 18 buildings, including structures at the historic Batsto Village and some blueberry and cranberry farms. Smoke could be smelled as far away as Atlantic City, around 40 miles away from where the fire was burning, and smoke also drifted over Long Beach Island, a popular tourist destination. Fifty people were evacuated Sunday; there are no fatalities or injuries thus far.
“Boy, it’s the baddest one I’ve ever seen,” resident Spike Wells told the Asbury Park Press. “We’ve seen a lot of them. Every year they’ve got some forest fires but not like this. It’s terrible.”
Wharton State Forest is the state’s largest forest that sits in a region known as the Pine Barrens, an ecologically unique region of coastal pine forests that sit atop sandy soil. While they don’t reach anywhere near the size of the fires that churn through hot and dry areas in western states, wildfires aren’t uncommon in New Jersey, especially in more remote wooded areas like the Pine Barrens: each year, an average of 1,500 fires burn around 7,000 acres of forest, according to statistics from the state Forest Fire Service.
Officials said during a press conference on Monday that they are still investigating the cause of the fire but that they had ruled out natural causes, and that this fire could potentially reach up to 15,000 acres before it is halted. The last fire that big was a blaze in 2007 that burned more than 17,000 acres and forced more than 2,000 people to evacuate. In 2019, a fire burned more than 11,600 acres for more than a month. Both of those fires were also in the Pinelands.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of New Jersey is not currently under drought conditions, and heavy rains in April helped to alleviate some concerningly dry situations across the state. But wildfires could keep growing as climate change becomes more severe in the state. More than 2 million properties in New Jersey are at increased risk from wildfire over the next 30 years, according to recent climate modeling from the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
“This is increasingly, sadly, the world we’re in, with climate change,” Gov. Phil Murphy said on Sunday night on his weekly television show on News 12 New Jersey. “This went from 2,000 acres to 11,000 in a very short amount of time.”