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Wildfire Enforcement

The number one cause for wildfires nationally is lightening, typically occurring in the remote wilderness of the west, where dry conditions evaporate what rain does fall shortly after it hits the ground. In New Jersey, the story is somewhat different. Heavy rain almost always accompanies thunderstorms.

So what does start the nearly 1,400 fires that occur each year in New Jersey?

That is the question each Firewarden must answer as part of the response by the New Jersey Forest FireInvestigations Service. The process begins with collection of information during dispatch, response and suppression activities. Location, time of day, and weather are recorded. Vehicles or people near the scene, tire tracks, and fire behavior become important. Are there multiple fires in the area? Is any evidence of a device present? As soon as possible an origin and cause investigation is conducted.

By following burn patterns, a trained wildfire investigator can narrow down a large wildfire of even several hundred acres to an area of origin only several square feet in size. These burn patterns are indicated by comparing charring on the opposite sides of tree trunks, stumps and downed logs, smoke “staining” on rocks, cans and bottles, and through analysis of the remains of the vegetation. Once the area of origin is determined, the scene investigator will set up grid lines and closely examine every square inch for evidence.

Protection of the point of origin is the key to any investigation. Unfortunately, many times the point of origin is compromised by suppression activities. Firefighters must remember to flag out the area and post a guard to ensure evidence protection. When possible, it is better to leave the area to smolder than to completely wash away evidence with hose streams.

While the scene investigation is in progress, interviews are conducted with witnesses and first responders. Often times this is done in cooperation with local police. Although Firewardens are trained law enforcement officers, their skills are best geared for reading the wildfire patterns while police are better adapted to the interview task. Only when both parts of the initial investigation are gathered and documented can the cause can be listed as natural, accidental, undetermined or incendiary in nature.

The next task is to determine through evidence or interviews the responsible party for an accidental or incendiary wildfire. Typically, the cost of suppression activities is sought from the responsible parties with fines up to $5,000 also possible under administrative law.

When a wildfire is determined to be arson, the investigation must also provide evidence to determine level of culpability, or intent of the act, for a determination of the degree of criminal prosecution. The Prosecutor is presented the evidence and decides if it is sufficient to prosecute. If a sound case was developed, a trial and conviction may occur, but not guaranteed.

Because any wildfire has the potential to become a criminal case, careful scene protection, evidence collection, and documentation become critical for each incident. By working together, police, firefighters, and the criminal justice system have a better chance to reduce future wildfires.

Causes of fires in New Jersey

Cause
Explanation
Percent
Miscellaneous
Undetermined causes, fireworks, explosives, etc.
24%
Arson
Intentionally caused
17.8%
Children
Children playing with matches or intentionally setting fires
17.4%
Equipment Use
Power lines, cars, trucks, lawn mowers, tractors, etc.
13.4%
Railroads
Caused by hot breaks, exhaust particles, equipment failures
7.5%
Smokers
Discarded cigarettes, and other smoking materials
7%
Campfires
Careless construction or abandonment without ensuring fire is out
7%
Debris Burning
Illegal burning of debris
5.7%
Lightning
Rain usually accompanies a lightning storm so few fires are caused
1%

People cause ninety-nine percent of New Jersey's wildfire,
either accidentally or intentionally!

 

More Information
K-9 Scent Tracking Dogs

Title 13 Chapter 9 State Forest Fire Service

Juvenile Firesetting Brochure


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Department of Environmental Protection
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Last Updated: August 18, 2011

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