New Jersey has seen its share of wildfires break out across the state over the past couple of weeks but officials in the town of Secaucus are prepared to tackle any fire that may break out in the meadows and marsh areas. Although a few small brush and mulch fires broke out recently, the town helped battle the blaze that burned for hours in neighboring Carlstadt on April 11. Secaucus was among the approximately 40 neighboring municipalities that responded to the wildfire that spread rapidly throughout the Meadowlands.
Local firefighters on the scene
Local firefighters were dispatched to exit 18W on the turnpike to help battle the 100-acre fire with 20-foot high flames that caused Paterson Plank Road to shot down and closed the Turnpike’s southbound western roads.
As part of a mutual aid agreement with southern Bergen County communities, Secaucus sent nine firefighters from Engine 2 to the turnpike to help protect the toll booths. The town belongs to Zone One and will go to the aid of Bergen County towns like Rutherford, East Rutherford, and Lyndhurst, in addition to providing mutual aid to Hudson County.
“On a windy day [a wildfire] could travel 100 feet in one minute.” – Chief George Schoenrock
“On a windy day it could travel 100 feet in one minute,” said Schoenrock. The fire was on a slow crawl across the meadows and did not have enough wind to spread so that firefighters could easily reach it.
“The fire was jumping 30 to 40 foot wide creeks,” added Schoenrock. The local volunteer firefighters stayed on the scene for approximately three hours. The turnpike was reopened around 5 p.m., even though the fire burned late into the night.
Carlstadt fire officials told the Bergen Record that the cause of the fire was faulty apparatus on a telephone pole. Last week, the dry air and low humidity conditions that spurred the wildfire in Carlstadt continued throughout the area.
Dry weather conditions
Two weeks ago, the town responded to a fire that broke out on private property because of a malfunction in equipment on a power service pole. The electrical outbreak set a whole row of hedges and a pole on fire. Schoenrock said that the firefighters had to wait until power to the pole was shot off before extinguishing the blaze.
He also said that the department has responded to a number of mulch fires at Sam’s Club and Walmart. Cigarette butts thrown out of car windows roll across the parking lot and can ignite the mulch, he said.
Officials at a town hall meeting earlier this month announced that the area was under a red flag warning by the New Jersey Forest Fire because of critical fire weather conditions that could lead to elevated fire growth if a fire is ignited. Lack of rain fall has led to dry conditions and increased chances for fires to spread rapidly. The state of New Jersey has seen over 350 wildfires since January compared to 190 last year for the same time period.
“I am shocked that we haven’t had [a wildfire] yet,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
Areas at risk
“We still have several hundred acres of meadow,” said Gonnelli. He listed the land behind the high school along Mill Ridge road, the property behind the Recreation Center by Koelle Boulevard, all of the turnpike area, and the property owned by Eugene Mori that borders North Bergen as potential risk areas.
Schoenrock said that the Mori property represents the biggest brush fire area. He noted that three years ago the department fought a big fire that burned itself to West Side Avenue on the Mori tract of land.
“Brush fires are usually just fast moving fires. They can change direction quickly…especially in the meadowlands where there can be contaminants, barrels…and tires, which can burn for days,” said Gonnelli.
He said that the town has a long history with brush fires. When he first became a volunteer firefighter in the 1970s, the town had larger areas of meadows and he said that all he did was fight brush fires.
“We still get them, just not as frequently.”
The town has on average 80 to 85 active volunteer firefighters. To date, the fire department has responded to 180 fire calls and last year had a total of 800.
“We are always prepared,” said Gonnelli.
The department has a brush fire truck that carries 250 gallons of water. It is also small enough in size to go into parking decks if needed.
“Heavy rainfall would certainly be a big help, given the fact that it has been so dry for so long,” said Gonnelli in regard to what would help abate the fire weather advisory. “But we are probably going to need a little more than that.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.