When the wildfire in the Wharton State Forest was first spotted Sunday morning it was burning in a small area, estimated to be about 30 acres.

Less than 24 hours later, the fire had destroyed more than 7,000 areas of forest, a section of a major highway, Route 206 was closed and a significant effort was underway to try to stop the blaze before it became a disaster.

The damage eventually spread to 11,000 acres and is expected to claim 15,000 by the time it is put out sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Greg McLaughlin, the New Jersey State Fire warden and Forest Fire Service chief, said initial efforts to contain the blaze were not successful because of dangerous weather conditions and the fact that the fire started in a remote section of the forest.

He said when humidity levels drop and the winds pick up, which was exactly what happened this past weekend, “that’s all going to be factors that are conducive to fire start and fire spread and fire growth because the vegetation that’s in front of that flaming front of fire is more ripe to burn.”

Fire whirls

The Wharton State blaze quickly became very intense Sunday morning.

“It’s been a really long time since I saw fire whirls, I saw several of them,” McLaughlin said.

A fire whirl is a small whirlwind induced by fire, sort of like a mini fire tornado.

Fire in the Brendon Byrne State Forest in Burlington County
(NBC Philadelphia)

He explained when a fire breaks out in a part of the forest that is hard to get to, “there’s a lot of areas that are wet, too wet for equipment, trucks and bulldozers to go in without getting stuck, but not wet enough to stop fire from spreading through them.”

He noted in many parts of the forest, reaching a fire is hard if not impossible.

Getting to a fire in the forest can be tricky

“Some of the roads are well maintained and you can travel quickly. Other roads aren’t meant to be roads and they’re small and they’re not maintained," McLaughlin saod.

He said if crews are unable to get equipment close to a wildfire when it starts, “we’re going to start to light fire to fight fire with fire, and burn out all of the vegetation essentially around the fire so it cannot spread any further in all directions.”

McLaughlin pointed out that while New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, 42% of the state is forested and almost half of all homes and buildings in the Garden State are located right next to a forest.

He said for the next several months when fire danger levels shoot higher in New Jersey, “we’ll staff our towers on those kinds of days, we’ll ready our people, we have a large part-time workforce that supports us and we make contingency plans.”

New Jersey has three forest fire divisions — north, central and south — with resources that can be reallocated when a significant fire threat develops in a particular part of the state.

Getty Stock / ThinkStock
Getty Stock / ThinkStock

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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See the Must-Drive Roads in Every State

These are the best hiking spots in New Jersey

A trip to New Jersey doesn't have to be all about the beach. Our state has some incredible trails, waterfalls, and lakes to enjoy.

From the Pine Barrens to the Appalachian Trail to the hidden gems of New Jersey, you have plenty of options for a great hike. Hiking is such a great way to spend time outdoors and enjoy nature, plus it's a great workout.

Before you go out on the trails and explore some of our listeners' suggestions, I have some tips on hiking etiquette from the American Hiking Society.

If you are going downhill and run into an uphill hiker, step to the side and give the uphill hiker space. A hiker going uphill has the right of way unless they stop to catch their breath.

Always stay on the trail, you may see side paths, unless they are marked as an official trail, steer clear of them. By going off-trail you may cause damage to the ecosystems around the trail, the plants, and wildlife that live there.

You also do not want to disturb the wildlife you encounter, just keep your distance from the wildlife and continue hiking.

Bicyclists should yield to hikers and horses. Hikers should also yield to horses, but I’m not sure how many horses you will encounter on the trails in New Jersey.
If you are thinking of bringing your dog on your hike, they should be leashed, and make sure to clean up all pet waste.

Lastly, be mindful of the weather, if the trail is too muddy, it's probably best to save your hike for another day.

I asked our listeners for their suggestions of the best hiking spots in New Jersey, check out their suggestions:

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