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One way to get rid of disease-carrying ticks in the Pine Barrens? Burn 'em

Around New Jersey's Pinelands, prescribed forest burns play an integral role in protecting homes and human lives. Each year, trained firefighters carefully burn the underbrush along roads and near neighborhoods to reduce material that could fuel wildfire.

The burning does more than just protect nearby homes: it helps regenerate the pine forest by opening pinecones and spreading seeds. It burns away competition from less fire resistant vegetation, like oak trees, which would otherwise overtake the forest in time.

But this forest burning serves a third purpose — it is reducing the number of ticks in portions of the Pinelands and the risk of exposure to tick-borne disease, said Michael Gallagher, an ecologist who studies wildfire for the U.S. Forest Service out of New Lisbon.

Despite Ocean and Burlington counties massively forested stretches, New Jersey Health Department records show that fewer cases of Lyme disease are reported in these counties each year than the northwestern portion of New Jersey.

Gallagher said the reason is partially due to the region's reliance on prescribed fire.

"Once you get into the coastal plain (a region that covers three-fifths of the southern half of New Jersey), the soil becomes much more sandy, much more porous, much more droughty," said Gallagher. "When you're a tick, your biggest problem in the world after feeding is avoiding desiccation and not drying out."

Routine prescribed burning removes the forest ground vegetation and leaf litter that provides shade and protection from sun and heat to ticks, he said.

Earlier: Fighting fire with fire in NJ Pinelands: How prescribed burns may save homes from wildfire

Without the shade, the Pinelands' hot, sandy soils can kill the tiny blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, that carry a variety of diseases, Gallagher said. The larger lone star ticks, named for the white dot on the backs of females, are better suited to survive such conditions, he said.

The human health impact

Last year, more than 3,500 people were diagnosed with Lyme disease within New Jersey, according to preliminary reports from the New Jersey Department of Health. 

Those were only the cases where people felt sick enough to seek medical treatment. Many cases of Lyme disease are mild and resolve without treatment, said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the state health department's Communicable Disease Service.

"Some people, when they get it, get pretty sick," he said. "They will seek medical care. For many other people, it can be mild. Months or years later, sometimes things get worse again, and sometimes they don't … most of the time it is relatively mild."

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Lyme disease is caused by several species of a spirochete bacteria known as Borrelia. In the Northeast, cases are caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

Lyme disease is the most common of diseases caused by tick or mosquito bites in the nation, according to the CDC. On average, more than 470,000 Americans each year are diagnosed and treated, according to the agency.

Lyme disease symptoms

The bite of a blacklegged tick transmits the bacteria in the Northeast, according to the CDC. In most cases, the tick must be attached for at least 36 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, according to the agency.

Blacklegged ticks can be difficult to spot once attached, because they can be as small as a poppy seed and still transmit Lyme disease through a bite, according to the CDC.

About 70% to 80% of people who contract Lyme disease will develop a circular rash or bullseye rash, according to the CDC. Other develop an array of symptoms: fever, chills, headache, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue in the first days and weeks following the bite.  

Longer term symptoms include severe headaches, neck stiffness, circular rashes on other parts of the body, facial paralysis, arthritis with joint swelling, muscle and bone pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, inflammation of the brain and spinal chord, shooting pain, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, according to the CDC.

"An awful lot of people in New Jersey have had Lyme disease (and) it's relatively mild. It's relatively easily treatable," said Lifshitz. "But certainly there is a concern that for some people, those symptoms can persist."

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In a subset of people, Lyme disease symptoms can linger longer than six months, despite treatment. The CDC calls the condition Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, a condition where people complain of long-lasting pain, fatigue, or difficulty thinking months after treatment for Lyme disease.

Gallagher believes that prescribed burning is helping to eliminate habitat that protects blacklegged ticks in areas where they are most likely to encounter people in the Pinelands.

"There's a very strong historic basis for prescribed burning in the Pine Barrens," he said.

A Swedish botanist in the 1700s interviewed New Jersey residents and first discovered the connection in the state between prescribed burning and tick populations, Gallagher said.

"The locals at the time were complaining that the government had forbade what we would call prescribed burning now," he said. "And they forbade it because they felt like they weren't getting enough tree regeneration. But the locals were upset with this ban, because they were starting to have tick problems. And they said, 'We never had tick problems when we used to burn the forest. And now we've learned that we stopped (burning) for a few years, and there are ticks everywhere.'"

Today, the same holds true. Gallagher, too, found that ticks were more prevalent in areas of the Pinelands that had not burned compared to areas that were more recently burned.

"I was working this patch that we insisted be left unburned (for research comparison) and it was just roiling with ticks," he recalled. 

He paid a price

Gallagher remembers finding an embedded blacklegged tick and pulling it from his body. Not long after, he experienced mood changes, lethargy and fevers at night, he said.

"The symptoms sort of slowly unraveled," Gallagher recalled. "I was busy with work, had a couple of stressful life things going on, and thought that I was just running myself down and maybe just feeling blue."

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Gallagher had contracted babesiosis, a blood parasite carried by ticks. While many people who contract babesiosis from a tick bite do not notice any symptoms, others report fever, chills, sweats, headaches, body aches, nausea or fatigue, according to the CDC.

The parasite also can cause a particular type of anemia and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, according to the agency.

In people who are elderly, have a weakened immune system, or a liver or kidney disease, babesiosis can be deadly.

Lyme disease remains the most common of tick-borne diseases in New Jersey. While Ocean and Burlington counties are home to some of the most dense and widespread forests in New Jersey, they report significantly lower cases of Lyme disease than counties in the northern portion of the state.

As of 2013, six New Jersey counties had more than 50% of their lands covered in forests: Burlington, Ocean, Atlantic, Sussex, Passaic and Morris.

In New Jersey, "We do see most of our cases around Warren County, Hunterdon County," said Justin Faybusovich, of the state health department's Vector-borne disease program. "Those counties have a large amount of parks and forested areas. A lot of trails."

Last year, the highest case counts of Lyme disease were reported in Morris (448), Sussex (362) and Monmouth (305) counties, according to preliminary data from the state health department. 

Despite their heavily forested areas, Ocean County had just 229 cases and Burlington County doctors reported just 201 cases, according to the preliminary data.

Accounting for population, Ocean County had a far lower rate of Lyme disease in 2020 (just 13 cases per 100,000 residents) than Hunterdon County (167 per 100,000 residents), according to the state Health Department. Likewise Burlington County had just 34 cases per 100,000 residents compared to Warren County's 180 cases per 100,000 residents, in 2020.

Gallagher said the return of prescribed burning has reshaped portions of the forest in ways that are changing not just its wildfire risk but ecology.

"You start to open up the canopy a little bit, you'll lower the shrub layer a little bit, and that'll enhance airflow," he said. "That'll enhance sunlight getting into the bottom of the forest, and it'll reduce the leaf litter. And basically… all those changes will make the forest a little bit less moist, and a little bit warmer at certain times of the year. And then in the winter, it will make the forest colder, because you don't have quite the insulation anymore."

These nuanced changes can mean life or death for a tick, Gallagher said. As a result, the people living near those areas will encounter fewer ticks when out in nature, he said.

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For the past century, people across much of the nation tended to view fire in forests as bad, but those attitudes are changing, Gallagher said. 

Firefighters "probably didn't know they're helping ticks be reduced," he said, but noted it is an unintended benefit of thinning the woods with controlled burns.

He added: "You can… accomplish multiple goals with prescribed fire in terms that might be complementary: restoring the ecosystem or maintaining ecosystem. Both will also help reduce ticks."  

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, or 732-557-5701.