Fire Adapted Communities Pinelands Learning Exchange

New Jersey and Long Island are home to some of the largest pitch pine barren natural communities in the Northeast. Communities of “fire people” bear the responsibility of managing these pinelands for human safety and ecological health. Through support from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, the Forest Stewards Guild brought together the stewards and residents of the New Jersey and Long Island Pinelands for two, two-day learning exchanges to share knowledge and spark collaboration to advance safety and resilience in these communities.

So close, and yet so far

The Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) Pinelands events were organized by the Guild and orchestrated by teams of partners connected through the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, a federally-funded network that has ignited fire science knowledge exchange throughout the Northeast. The “fire people” in New Jersey and Long Island came from different suites of agencies, enhancing the diversity of experience brought to the table. In New Jersey, key collaborators include the New Jersey Fire Safety Council, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS), the New Jersey Forest Service, the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, and the USDA Forest Service. On Long Island, the lead organizers represented the New York Central Pine Barrens Commission, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Suffolk County, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

New Jersey Pinelands Exchange, May 30-31, 2018

The New Jersey Exchange was hosted at Country Walk, a retirement community engaged in wildfire preparedness. The program began with a brief history of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, which was founded in 1906 after centuries of wildfire. Today, the Forest Fire Service protects life and property through a team of fire wardens, aviation and ground equipment, fire towers, roughly 14,000 acres per year of prescribed fire, and participation in programs such as Ready-Set-Go and the New Jersey Fire Safety Council.

In the field 30+ participants first followed the Country Walk evacuation route. The group also visited an adjacent area that had been burned and mowed to increase safety. A short drive away, the Whiting Wildlife Management Area is managed meticulously by the state’s wildlife and forestry agencies to meet multiple objectives in the backyard of another subdivision. The last stop brought the group to a managed fuel break on other state-managed pinelands adjacent to homes. 

At every stop, ecologists talked with foresters. Fire wardens talked with residents. Long Islanders talked with New Jerseyans. The group discussion helped each participant put the sites in a personal context. 

The next morning, at the Manitou Fire Company station, members of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service talked about New Jersey’s Ready-Set-Go Initiative, and the group explored ideas for growing this program on Long Island.

Later, at Double Trouble State Park, New Jersey Forest Service foresters highlighted a suite of management activities. A stand of Atlantic white cedar had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy; restoration efforts included replanting the stand and enhancing watershed health through thinning and prescribed burning. One forester explained a popular volunteer event focused on thinning a pine stand: “It was amazing – we had preservationists and land managers who are sometimes at odds with each other working with sharp tools in the same forest stand, and nobody got hurt!”

The participants were asked what steps they will take following the exchange. At least 23 specific, action-oriented and collaborative ideas were shared, including pursuing a mutual aid agreement between New Jersey and Long Island to facilitate opportunities to continue learning from each other on prescribed fire and wildfire.

Long Island Pinelands Exchange, June 13-14, 2018

Two weeks later, the New Jersey crew braved the U.S. Open traffic to join the enthusiastic group of 30+ participants gathered to talk about fire adapted communities work in Long Island’s Pine Barrens at Brookhaven National Laboratory. An introduction to the ecology and management of the Pine Barrens preceded field-based discussions.

At Brookhaven, the pinelands are broken into burn units and treated to meet ecological goals as well as for hazardous fuels reduction. The group looked at fire effects from different treatments and discussed the Lab’s deer management program. There was plenty to discuss in terms of fire effects and challenges to fuels management on Long Island, where they conduct growing season burns but lack the capacity to treat anywhere near the acreage that New Jersey treats each year. 

The group visited an area within the local Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and learned about efforts to implement the CWPP in neighborhoods in the pinelands. The last stop highlighted some key differences between emergency response in New Jersey’s and Long Island’s Pine Barrens. Where the New Jersey Forest Fire Service leads the state’s wildfire response, Long Island incidents are managed by the “home rule” of local volunteer fire departments, most of which lack wildland training. 

Conversations continued over dinner. Ecologists, fire scientists, FAC leaders, foresters, and firefighters swapped stories and shared ideas for advancing safe and resilient fire adapted communities in the two states.

Day 2 began at the Central Pine Barrens Commission office with an introduction to the unique dwarf pine barrens ecosystem and the management approach used to sustain it. The group also discussed the 1995 Sunrise and Rocky Point wildfires, which burned 7,000 acres, involved 2,500 responders, and did $5 million in damage.

The group visited the site of a grassland burn managed for ecological objectives; however, not all fire-adapted ecosystems on the Island are managed with ecology or fire safety in mind. Next, the group visited the Rocky Point demonstration site, designed to illustrate a mix of burning and mowing treatments in a short recreational loop. A last “bonus” site focused on Southern pine beetle management at a nearby state park. This beetle poses challenges to management and fire danger. 

The groups agreed the events were a good time. They learned something valuable that would benefit them in their work. A few quotes capture the spirit of these learning exchanges and how they inspire next steps:

“We really want to look forward to continuing not just this learning exchange, but collaborating and learning with you on the job, setting up a mutual aid agreement. That would be a wonderful way to keep working with you over the next several years.”

“The more people we get involved in this and have a better understanding of why fire’s important, why we need it, and how feasible it could be to use it as a management tool, the better. I’m hoping we can do more of these kinds of things to continue learning from each other as our programs grow.”

“It’s been a great experience to see how it’s all connected and how great organizations of people come together to achieve what we want and learn from each other. I’d like to continue that in my career and get more involved in fire and see how it influences the places we live, especially the wildland-urban interface.”