Joint Base MDL joins forces with N.J. Forest Fire Service to attack growing threat of wildfires in Pinelands

Sometime during the afternoon of April 11, 2023, a dry thatch of brush and vegetation on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst somewhere west of Route 539 caught fire.

It was not a good day for a fire to kick up. The conditions were perfect to feed the initial flames — the relative humidity was low, rainfall had been scarce for some time and winds were gusting up to 25 miles per hour.

The Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire of 2023.

Energized, the flames burned and burned and burned from one thatch of ground to another, hopscotching Route 539 and moving eastward through portions of Manchester Township and along the entire southern boundary of the Joint Base.

Within a staggeringly short amount of time, what began as a modest fire engulfing a few piles of dry leaves and brush exploded into a raging wildfire, conquering vast acreage of the Pinelands, its flames estimated by veteran firefighters to be 200 feet high or more.

Shortly after nightfall, with the firefighters not yet able to contain the spread of the flames, about 170 homes in Manchester Township and Lakehurst had to be evacuated.

As the overnight gave way to the dawn, the training and the tactics of the firefighters began to pay off. The fire was declared contained later that day after it had charred almost 4,000 acres. Miraculously, no one was injured and no property was lost.


The wildfire of April 11-12, 2023, became known as the Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire, and it turned out to be the largest wildfire in the state that year. It was named for a natural geographic landmark near where the firefighters first tried to contain the flames.

“We were involved in containing that fire,” said Fire Capt. Wayne Wharton, a veteran civilian firefighter who has worked at the Joint Base since it was created in 2009 and worked at Fort Dix and Picatinny Arsenal before that.

Fire Capt. Wayne Wharton, left, and firefighter Terry Jewell during a training exercise.

Wharton noted that his firefighting units regularly train and share classes and workshops with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, the branch of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection charged with fighting wildfires.

This collaboration also includes local firefighting brigades, and this becomes critically helpful when they have to jointly face a huge firefighting challenge such as with Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire.

Wharton also said the teams can quickly get into action because they are familiar with the Incident Command System, a nationally standardized protocol for deploying and managing emergency response teams on site.

The Joint Base has its own firefighting unit, consisting of about 150 firefighters manning six firehouses across its 42,000 acres. In addition to fighting fires, the unit performs rescue operations and hazardous material removal.

“We normally handle about 200 runs per month on the base,” said Wharton, “and we support local firefighting units in the surrounding towns when we get a call.”

Wharton said the Joint Base averages between 150-300 wildfires per year, depending on the rainfall.


While the state of New Jersey averages 1,500 wildfires each year, it is the ones in the Pinelands that are of imminent concern. The natural environment there makes it overly susceptible to fires, meaning more than 400,000 people live in a tinderbox — a 1 million-acre tinderbox.

The Pinelands soil is sandy and acidic, so it does not hold moisture very well or very long. It is common for the soil to be fully dried out within a day following heavy rain. That makes the ground cover and vegetation especially dry and flammable, and that is a recipe for massive conflagrations like Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire.

Insurance angle

The increasing number of wildfires in the state has caught the attention of insurance companies, which offer policies — and advice on prevention. See story here.

Add to that a report issued last year by Climate Central, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton, which warned that the warming climate is drying out our forests, grasslands and other landscapes, providing fuel that will make wildfires more frequent and intense.

“We have definitely seen a change in the last three to four years in how long the wildfire season lasts,” said Wharton about the Climate Central report, though he offered an additional reason for the elongated season. “One aspect of the increase in wildfires is the lack of snow the past few years. Without the snowpack, the growth comes back more quickly and makes areas more vulnerable.”

It should be noted that, while wildfires in the Pinelands are a danger to life and property, they are actually an elixir of life for the Pinelands ecosystem.

The pine trees that dominate the area have very thick bark and can tolerate flames very well. But the heat induces the pinecones on the trees to open and drop their seeds to the ground, where they can quickly germinate because the fire has cleared away the ground cover around the trees.

“We saw growth begin almost immediately in the area after the (Jimmy’s Waterhole) fire,” Wharton said.


The New Jersey Forest Fire Service is diligent in monitoring all of the forested areas in the state for potential fires, and it partners with the Joint Base and local firefighting brigades to implement a set of tactics that can mitigate the instances of sustained and damaging wildfires in places like the Pinelands.

One such tactic is called a “fuel break” — the “fuel” referring to the dry and flammable ground cover ubiquitous in the Pinelands.

Firefighters manage a “controlled burn” in the Pinelands.

Firefighters reduce or eliminate this ground cover in long stretches of the forest via a “controlled” or “prescribed burn.” The firefighters carefully ignite and control targeted areas of ground cover until it is fully burned away, eliminating a primary source on which wildfires would otherwise feed.

These fuel breaks were instrumental in helping contain the Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire.

“Presently, we do a burn cycle once every three to five years,” said Wharton. “But, now, we are seeing more rapid growth, and we may have to shorten the burn cycle.”

Funding for these fire-mitigating activities comes from the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program. This fund was instituted to help military installations avoid land-use conflicts with neighbors or to limit encroachment that otherwise could hamper its training activities.

The wildfire season in New Jersey is generally considered to run from mid-March to mid-May. For 2024, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service reports 403 wildfires so far this year, a considerably lower number than previous years or compared with the average of 1,500 per year.

“The fire incidents have been less this year because we just had so much rain almost every day in the spring,” explained Wharton.