Wildfire contained after 3 days but it’s still smoldering

WEST MILFORD. Hundreds of first-responders work around the clock to extinguish the largest local wildfire in 14 years.

| 19 Apr 2023 | 01:54

A wildfire that consumed almost 1,000 acres in West Milford was 100 percent contained as of 10 a.m. Saturday, April 15, nearly three days after it began.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service crews were still on duty Sunday, April 16 because some spots were smoldering even after the rain Saturday evening.

Officials reminded residents that the fire continues to smolder, and Wednesday, April 19 was declared a Red Flag day because the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and gusty winds could create favorable conditions for the rapid spread of fire in the afternoon.

Hundreds of firefighters from West Milford, surrounding towns and the Forest Fire Service battled the blaze, which was the largest wildfire in West Milford since 2009, when 75 acres burned.

Labeled the Kanouse fire, it was the largest in northern New Jersey since 2010, when 103 acres at the Delaware Water Gap caught fire.

Echo Lake Road, which had been closed since Wednesday afternoon, April 12, reopened about 5 p.m. Saturday. It had remained closed because numerous dead trees or trees weakened by the fire created a hazard along it.

During a press briefing Tuesday, April 18, John Cecil, assistant commissioner of State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites, said that so far in 2023, New Jersey has had 517 wildfires that burned 7,608 acres, compared with 327 wildfires that burned 471 acres in 2022 and 373 wildfires that burned 508 acres in 2021.

The dry conditions resulting from a drought last year and very little snow this winter have contributed to the number of wildfires, he noted.

The variability in weather conditions, from one of the wettest years in New Jersey in 2019 to drought last year and very dry conditions this year, “makes it hard to keep everybody engaged in being safe and taking precautions” at campsites and when burning items outdoors. Cecil attributed the variability to climate change.

In addition, the state’s warm season has been extended by an average of a month, he said.

One of the challenges with the West Milford wildfire was dead ash trees, which have been killed by the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect, Cecil said.

’Mopping up’

Greg McLaughlin, chief of the Forest Fire Service, said embers traveled about a half-mile from the fire on the west side of Echo Lake across the lake. “And those embers were starting new, what we call spot, fires.”

He reminded residents that spring is peak fire season in New Jersey.

Forest Fire Service personnel are continuing “mopping up” in West Milford, using water on dead trees and other vegetation that continue to smolder and burn.

“We don’t want those falling trees and those burning embers to come across the containment line. We don’t want them falling on power lines and roads,” McLaughlin said.

The wildfire will not be considered out until there is significant rain, he added.

Meanwhile, a member of the Sussex Borough Fire Department who had responded to the six-acre Mount Salem Road fire in Wantage on Wednesday to support the Forest Fire Service died at his home in Wantage that night, the service said.

“The New Jersey Forest Fire Service extends its condolences to the family of Sussex Township firefighter Tony Duivenvoorde, who died at home Wednesday night,” it said on Twitter.

On Thursday, Sussex Fire & EMS posted on Facebook, “Tony responded to 2 calls yesterday morning and later passed away at his home.”

Robert Holowach, president of the Sussex Borough Council, said on Facebook, “Tony served our community for decades as a member of the Sussex Fire Department. I had the privilege of working alongside him many times over the years. He was indeed a dedicated servant and an absolutely terrific gentleman.

“Please keep Tony and his family as well as the members of the Sussex Fire Department in your thoughts.”

Stressful, exhausting

On Sunday morning, West Milford firefighters thanked the community and all those from surrounding areas who helped extinguish the fire.

“The past 3 days have been some of the most stressful and exhausting days for hundreds of 1st responders. Firefighters from all six West Milford Fire Companies, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Ringwood, Bloomingdale, Butler, Rockaway, Vernon, Wayne, Pompton Lakes, Pequanock, Hardyston, Mt. Arlington, Greenwood Lake NY, Picatinny Arsenal, Mine Hill, Budd Lake, Highland Lakes, Parsippany, Riverdale, Lake Hiawatha, Clifton, Paterson, Passaic, Hawthorne, Mendham Twsp, Lincoln Park, Little Falls, Totowa, West Paterson, Haledon, North Haledon, Wanaque, all responded in some capacity to the Kanouse Rd Wildfire incident.

“Whether it was for station coverage, manpower at the scene, water supply or equipment, everyone worked excellent together and worked extremely hard from start to finish. We couldn’t have brought all these resources together without our Passaic County and Morris County Mutual Aid Coordinators,” according to a Facebook post.

Members of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife forestry service and National Park Forest Fire Service from the Delaware Water Gap “spent day and night face to face in the wood fighting the fire 24/7 working the fire lines to prevent the fires advancement,” the post said. “Making water drops, digging fire lines, back burning and extinguishing fire that firefighters could not reach. Thank you all for your hard work!”

West Milford and Bloomingdale police, New Jersey State Police and the West Milford Department of Public Works assisted with road closures and fueling fire apparatus.

The West Milford First Aid Squad, Milton First Aid Squad, Passaic County Volunteer Canteen and Rehab unit, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the New Jersey EMS Task Force provided water, Gatorade, snacks, shade, wet towels and ice.

Members of the Ladies Auxiliary of West Milford Fire Companies 4 and 1 organized donations from residents and businesses and brought them to the command post and other stand-by areas.
They also cooked food for the late-night operations.

The West Milford CERT team passed out cases of water and refreshments to units working Saturday.

Evacuations ordered

After the Forest Fire Service labeled the fire 40 percent contained Thursday afternoon, April 13, flames jumped the containment zone and prompted five evacuations that night.

West Milford Mayor Mayor Michele Dale reported that the fire was moving toward Macopin Road. “Residents in potential risk areas have been and are being notified and some are being evacuated for their own protection,” she said.

Just before 7 p.m. Thursday, the township’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) said Macopin was closed from Germantown Road to Westbrook Road because of Fire Department activity. Gould and Echo Lake also were closed, and residents were asked to avoid the area.

About 8:15 p.m. Thursday, the Police Department said the fire was still contained within the Echo Lake watershed property. “Several residences that directly border the property were evacuated as a precaution.”

“Forest Fire Service crews are continuing to utilize a backfiring operation to aid in containment,” according to an update Thursday evening. “Air support from a Forest Fire Service single-engine air tanker (SEAT) and Huey Helicopter provided water drops earlier this evening.”

About 3 a.m. Friday, the OEM said Macopin was open but Echo Lake Road would remain closed indefinitely.

Five structures had been evacuated, the Forest Fire Service said. Later Friday morning, it said four evacuation orders had been lifted.

Rapid response praised

Route 23 reopened late Wednesday night after the northbound lanes were closed between Germantown and Union Valley roads that afternoon.

Drivers on other local roads, including Macopin and Germantown, experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, especially during the afternoon and early-evening rush hour.

About 600 JCP&L customers reportedly lost power Wednesday but nearly all had power restored by 10 p.m.

During a press briefing Thursday morning, smoke was still spewing but no threat was anticipated from the fire that had consumed 400 acres of woodlands off Route 23 and Echo Lake Road near the Charlotteburg Reservoir, Forest Fire Service and other officials said.

At that time, the fire was 30 percent contained.

The cause is under investigation, they said.

McLaughlin, the Forest Fire Service chief, said the rapid response and coordination among firefighters and other emergency services organizations, including nearly three dozen expert firefighters, helped get the wildfire under control and avert further spread.

“We used resources and actions effectively, including setting backfires and use of aerial tankers (helicopters) that douse 800 gallons of water at one time in hot spots,” he said. “The steep and rocky terrain makes fighting flames more difficult and requires more work by hand.”

High winds presented several challenges as did the risks of falling and rolling trees, dry leaves and vegetation, and other debris.

Horses evacuated

Dozens of horses from Echo Lake Stables were evacuated by owners and volunteers. They had returned to the stable on Thursday.

Cecil, the State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites assistant commissioner, cited the extensive and well-coordinated efforts of state and local agencies, including the West Milford OEM, fire, police, rescue and other departments. He also thanked residents and the public for their cooperation and support.

Cecil said it was “an extreme fire,” very different than the fire the same week in South Jersey. Fire crews worked on all sides of the fire, making use of various access roads and trails across a difficult landscape, he said.

McLaughlin said, “It’s very fatiguing and you start to see that fatigue set in,” citing the heat and long hours.

“The north side had limited access to the dense terrain, and there we had to make use of the air tankers to drop water and use other tactics,” he noted. “This included burnouts to Echo Lake Road on the southern edge of the fire.”

Anthony Parrello, administrative lieutenant with the West Milford Police Department, called the cooperation outstanding among all agencies involved, including West Milford OEM, police and fire departments; Passaic County; nearby towns; and the state.

“Everyone worked well together to get the fire contained, managing roads closures and traffic, and ensuring the public was protected from the incident.”

Help and donations

Local support came from, among others, Macopin Pizza, which provided significant quantities of pizza, calzones, salads and more for crews battling the wildfire Wednesday.

Many residents called or came in to help pay for the food for the first-responders.

“The response from the local community and people in other towns was unbelievable,” said Lorraine Covello, owner of the restaurant. “It’s great to see people all pulling together from West Milford and elsewhere who showed support.”

In the Facebook post Sunday, firefighters thanked residents and local businesses for their help and donations.

“It was overwhelming and emotional to see how the community came together. First at Echo Lake Stables. The amount of residents that were not affiliated with the stables and showed up to help evacuate close to 100+ animals was incredible. It was also done in a very short amount of time. All your help made the evacuation smooth and successfully able to transfer them to a safe area at other stable centers.

“Then, the amount of water, Gatorade, granola bars, protein bars, beef jerky, eye drops, baby wipes, coolers and among other supplies that were donated, words can’t describe it. At a point we were not able to park the trucks in our firehouse because of the amount of supplies.”