NJ: Sharing Wildfire Lessons with the UK
Author: Bill Brash, Mercer County Soil Conservation District
Alan Clark, a Surrey County, England firefighter, and his wife Heather visited Barnegat Township, New Jersey on a trip designed as an information sharing session between New Jersey and UK wildland firefighters. What began two years ago as an exchange of e-mail addresses at the 2014 WUI Conference in Reno, Nevada continued with Alan visiting America once again as the guest of District Firewarden John Cowie in Barnegat, NJ.
Alan, concerned about the risk of wildfire in his home county of Surrey, was seeking guidance and suggestions from New Jersey’s wildland firefighters on specific efforts and suppression equipment to help the firefighters in Surrey do a better job. He was seeking guidance on US preparedness efforts like Firewise, Ready-Set-Go! (RSG) and Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP’s). Alan was also interested in New Jersey’s wildfire tactics and the equipment most useful in those suppression efforts.
Why Barnegat, NJ for this information sharing trip of roughly 3,000 miles?
To understand the reasoning behind Alan’s decision to visit Barnegat you need to know the similarities between the two locations. Surrey County in the South of England in part serves as the suburbs for London. It encompasses an area of 642 square miles with 1.1 million residents calling it home. Surrey is the most wooded county in England with 22.4 percent of the county covered in forest. This is nearly twice the UK national average of 11.8 percent.
Barnegat Township lies within Ocean County, New Jersey with a population of 576,567 and a land area of 628 square miles. Ocean County lies within the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a 1.1-million-acre forest halfway between Philadelphia and New York City. Ocean County is one of only three Counties in New Jersey that can boast a forest canopy above 60 percent of its land area. The majority of this is a high hazard fuel of pitch, shortleaf and virginia pine.
Prior to Alan and Heather’s arrival in Barnegat they were asked several questions to help guide the exchange of information and maximize Alan’s information sharing trip to New Jersey. Alan and Heather were most interested in the following, in order of priority:
- To understand how communities are responding to outreach (preparedness) programs and the challenges we in New Jersey face.
- Provide comments and suggestions to a prevention manual being prepared by Alan.
- To understand the wildland-urban interface and allow Alan to put that concept in a familiar context.
- Fire-fighting tactics and equipment used in the wildland-urban interface suppression effort
To understand how communities are responding to outreach (preparedness) programs and the challenges we in NJ face.
In response to this request, Alan received information on New Jersey’s wildfire preparedness programs
that included local community efforts with Firewise, RSG, and CWPP’s. In addition, the statewide coordination of these local efforts through Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network actions and the subsequent creation of an infrastructure that now includes state and local Fire Safe Councils, was eye-opening to Alan and Heather. Both immediately saw the advantage of a sharing and learning network and requested literature and web resources on FAC.
Provide comments and suggestions to a prevention manual being prepared by Alan.
Alan and Heather provided the New Jersey contingent with an overview of their preparedness (what they call “outreach”) efforts. They had experienced many of the same obstacles as Barnegat had in organizing Firewise Communities and the RSG program. They were having some success in helping people take responsibility for their own safety due to a previously deadly fire in their county known as the Thursley-Common Fire in 2006, where the fire overtook an Engine Crew resulting in firefighter deaths. Alan and Heather took comprehensive notes on the CWPP process and how FAC concepts can be incorporated into a total preparedness effort with an over-arching goal of community resiliency.
To understand the WUI and allow Alan to put that concept in a familiar context.
According to Alan, Surrey residents have no concept of a “wildland” and would react to such a name negatively, so they have adapted the term rural-urban interface or (RUI). With that understanding they explained that during the 2006 Thursley-Common fire local firefighters were ill-equipped to handle such a fast moving fire and quickly became overwhelmed. He was extremely interested in New Jersey’s direct attack tactics and the special equipment used by New Jersey’s Forest Fire Service.
To view the equipment and understand the tactics used in New Jersey’s wildfire suppression program.
Alan and Heather received a “birds eye” view of the Pine Barrens and the communities that resided within the forest. They also accompanied a New Jersey Section Firewarden on a call to douse a campfire that was observed through aerial training exercises. Alan and Heather climbed the Cedar Bridge Fire Tower and spoke to the tower observer to learn about the observer’s role in spotting and reporting fire activity.
Both commented on how similar New Jersey’s tactics and equipment are to the way France fights wildfire.
It was a whirlwind tour for both Alan and Heather as they spent an entire week sharing their firefighting needs and lessons with the New Jersey contingent. In the end they requested and received enough wildfire literature to overwhelm the airport baggage scales. Both communities benefitted from the information sharing and will continue the relationship.