Heat and a lack of rain have made Somerset, Morris and Sussex counties highly susceptible to forest fires, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The state has seen almost twice as many (873) fires in since Jan. 1 than in all of 2011 (465), the state Forest Fire Service said.
Dry days, with heat in the 90s, has been standard for many days this month. Just this week, a large brush fire was reported off South Maple Avenue in Basking Ridge on Wednesday night.
On Thursday night, an Alexandria Way resident said in the comment section below that she had a brush fire in her backyard area. "Not sure if it was started by a cigarette or by some neighbor lighting off fireworks! Either way it was frightening." She said Liberty Corner firefighters arrived quickly, and her husband and neighbor used hoses to keep the fire from spreading.
A patch of dry pine needles caught fire on the edge of the parking lot behind the Hills on July 1. Although it had rained a few days earlier, Fred Miller, a Liberty Corner fireman who also is with the N.J. Forest Fire Service, said then it is easy for pine needles to dry out quickly in weather of near 100 degrees.
Miller said that night that he would not speculate on what ignited the fire, which he said had grown to an area of about 10 by 10 feet by the time he arrived.
A burning smell was called in by a resident on Dexter Drive at approximately 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday night, according to Police Lt. Mike Shimsky, who also heads the township's Office of Emergency Management.
Patrol and fire units checked the area and subsequently found a brush and dumpster fire on Rockridge Court, according to Shimsky. On Friday, he said the cause of the fire remains unknown, although the flames ignited the dumpster contents as well as several hundred square feet of grass and brush.
The fire was extinguished without incident, Shimsky said. Responding agencies were from the Basking Ridge Fire Company, Millington Fire Company, and the N.J. Forest Fire Service, he said.
Shimsky cautioned in general: "People should also be mindful of disposing of cigarettes especially during these dry times."
Throughout the three counties, the state has placed the area at Stage No. 1 in fire restriction rating system, which means most outdoor fires are prohibited, unless confined within a properly constructed ring.
"All fine dead fuels ignite readily and fires start easily from most causes," the Forest Fire Service said on its website. "Unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape. Fires spread rapidly and short-distance spotting is common. High-intensity burning may develop on slopes or in concentrations of fine fuels. Fires may become serious and their control difficult unless they are attacked successfully while small."
Earlier this year, during another dry spell in April, abrush fire that began behind a Prospect Street home near downtown Basking Ridge burned the siding off the rear of the home and left char marks up to the second flood, but did not spread into the interior of the structure, Chief Duncan Watt said at that time.
Shimsky said the N.J. Forest Fire Service lists this area as having a “high” fire danger. A high danger rating is defined as….”All fine dead fuels ignite readily and fires start easily from most causes. Unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape. Fires spread rapidly and short-distance spotting is common. High-intensity burning may develop on slopes or in concentrations of fine fuels. Fires may become serious and their control difficult unless they are attacked successfully while small."
Editors Brendan Kuty and Linda Sadlouskos contributed to this story.