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Officials Warn Forest Fires Threat Could Be Disastrous In New Jersey This Year

ANDOVER, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- The spring wildfire season is here, and this one has the potential to be disastrous in New Jersey.

As CBS2's Elise Finch reported, there is ample brush on the forest floor, and weather has prevented almost all the preemptive controlled burns planned to reduce forest fires.

Visitors to Kittatinny Valley State Park in northwest New Jersey smelled smoke as soon as they entered the area.

"It smells like smoke; like really bad smoke," said Abby Nichols of Andover, New Jersey.

"It smells really bad," added Jocelyn Reynolds, also of Andover. "I was holding my nose the whole time."

A prescribed burn of grassy areas at the state park is one of the few controlled fires that New Jersey Forest Fire Service officials have been able to complete.

"This year, I'm going to be surprised if we got 10 percent done that we wanted to do -- just because of the weather," said Jason Von Oesen, the fire warden for the northern part of the state. "We needed the snow to melt. We needed temperatures to come up. We also needed the humidity to start coming down."

In order to conduct a prescribed burn, weather conditions have to be just right. You need calm winds, adequate humidity and temperatures that are above freezing but below 60 degrees.

That means the weather Monday was also a problem, with 70-degree temperatures, 25 mph wind gusts, and dry conditions. The sign featuring Smokey the Bear at the mouth of the state park warned that fire danger was high on Monday.

"Humidity dropped out, so we shut everybody down," Von Oesen said.

Snowy winters typically lead to active fire seasons, and that is why prescribed burns are so important. They eliminate the leaves and twigs that forest fires thrive on.

The season for the prescribed burns typically ends on March 15. But the New Jersey state fire warden issued extensions into April so forest service crews could get more done.

But the weather has continued to thwart their efforts, and now, time is up. Fire officials said any blazes ignited this year will be especially dangerous.

Area residents told CBS2 they are getting ready.

"We, you know, keep the leaves raked up," said Diane Crowley of Sparta. "We had a lot of branches that came down this winter, so we clean those up."

Fire officials said it is now up to residents and campers to follow basic fire safety rules to prevent forest fires.

Since April 1, the northern division of the Forest Fire Service said it has already responded to 24 forest fires and seven other incidents – including smoke scares and illegal campfires.

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