A WILDFIRE hazard mitigation project that started with the collaboration of Ocean County's Department of Parks and Recreation, and its Planning Department and quickly attracted the support of the Department of Defense, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Forest Fire Service is now protecting 4,000 residents in the Roosevelt City section of Manchester Township.
"The interest in this project spread rapidly to our federal, state and local partners," said Ocean County Commissioner Virginia E. Haines, who is liaison to the Ocean County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust. "With their help we are now protecting from wildfires an area of Manchester Township that has about 1,700 homes."
The firebreak protects an area considered by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service to be at the highest risk of loss of property and life in the event of a major wildfire. The state of New Jersey is in the peak of forest fire season which lasts until early May.
"We have seen the devastation wildfires can cause and how quickly they spread. The action we took along with our partners to create this fuel-break will result in reduced wildfire risk," said Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners Gary Quinn, who is liaison to the county's Planning Department.
In order to move the project forward, Ocean County contracted with Shelterwood Forest Managers to complete a Forest Stewardship Plan for the Roosevelt City section of Manchester Township on County Natural Lands Trust property. The Pinelands Commission approved the plan on September 11, 2020.
The objectives of the Stewardship Plan was to ensure the sustainability of the property's native forest; reduce wildfire risk to the residents of Roosevelt City by creating a fuel-break and to manage the forest with a consideration for wildlife.
"Following the purchase of the Structural Management Property in Manchester Township by the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Program, we realized that we had an obligation as the new landowner to manage our property in a way that would decrease the wildfire risk for the nearby communities," said Michael Mangum, Director of the Ocean County Department of Parks and Recreation. "Over the next few years, we worked closely with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and Manchester Township to develop an agreement that would pave the way for a landscape-level management program on all public lands in the area."
The agreement proposed the creation of a 200 foot wide, five mile long, fuel break around the majority of Roosevelt City, and encouraged prescribed burning on the surrounding public land. Both management goals set out to reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuels by thinning the wooded vegetation including shrubs, thereby reducing the risk of wildfire. The project has the added benefit of improving forest health.
According to Anthony Agliata, Ocean County Planning Director, the project was underway when County Planning staff were contacted by the NJDEP regarding a Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) challenge grant which was submitted in January 2020.
"The United States Navy is pleased to lead the DoD's REPI Challenge in New Jersey," said U.S. Navy Capt. Ed Callahan, Naval Weapons Station Earle Commanding Officer. "The Roosevelt City project is just the first of six tasks, totaling $1.9 million, that will help lower the risk of wild fire, increase storm surge resistance and increase stormwater capacity across three New Jersey counties, protecting five military facilities as well as their neighboring communities."
The REPI grant award will pay for all of the contractual services for implementation of the fuel break, as well as, equipment for the long term fire mitigation. The grant will be used to reimburse 100 percent of the project costs to the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund.
In addition to the project protecting the residents of Roosevelt City, it also protects Joint Base – McGuire Dix Lakehurst infrastructure from any wildfire that may originate from the Roosevelt City area.
"This project is a great example of federal-state-county partnership to protect both people who live near the Joint Base as well as the personnel and missions on-base," said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, 4th District, who led the fight that reversed the planned closure of Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station in 1995, as well as helped secure the historic Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in 2009 as a way to preserve missions at all three facilities.
"The Ocean County Commissioners and the State of New Jersey have stepped up to make this project a reality. I will continue to work with DoD and the Navy to preserve and enhance the ‘good neighbor' relationship we have and to provide federal money to protect our bases from environmental challenges that might impair the military missions," Smith said. "In this case a modest $380,000 in federal dollars pays for a five-mile long firebreak near JB-MDL south of Route 70 and west of Route 539. It also strengthens the base in any upcoming rounds of base realignment and closure (BRAC)."
"In working with Congressman Chris Smith, the DoD, the state, our county agencies, and Manchester Township, these actions have far-reaching benefits," said Ocean County Commissioner John P. Kelly, Director of Law and Public.
The Ocean County Board of Commissioners awarded the contract for forestry thinning to Pagodin's Tree Care Service, LLC on Dec. 16, 2020. The thinning was completed in February. The County's contracted forester, Bill Brash of Shelterwood Forestry, provided oversight and final inspection of the project.
"We will continue to work with the state Forest Fire Service to do prescribed burns in the area reducing the accumulation of vegetation and growth that can act as fuels," Haines said. "This effort is important to public safety and helps preserve the delicate ecology of the Pinelands."