By Cleve Bryan

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EVESHAM TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBS) – It was a smoky Wednesday in Evesham Township with flames covering hundreds of acres of woods. But there is no need to worry – it was all for a good reason.

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It wasn’t just in Evesham Township, it happened all throughout New Jersey. There were 17 prescribed burns in preparation for wildfire season Wednesday.

Prescribed fires are a prevention technique that New Jersey’s Forest Fire Service has used for nearly a century. They’ve been doing it since the 1920s.

They set small controlled fires to prevent big, out-of-control ones. It may look weird to see someone intentionally set the woods on fire or to see the smoke billowing into the sky from miles away, but experts say woods that are left alone, especially in the Pine Barrens, are bound to burn some time.

“We’re burning the woods today because it’s the time of the year we do these management tactics, reducing hazardous fuels in these Pine Barren settings,” New Jersey Forest Fire Service section warden Tom Gerber said.

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With wildfire season about to begin in April, the Forest Fire Service is trying to get as many controlled burns done as possible. This week, they have more than two dozen planned statewide. Some you don’t see deep in the woods, others, like the one Wednesday along Kettle Run Road, require busy roads to be closed.

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“This particular track has not had a significant fire in many, many years,” Evesham Township Fire Chief Carl Bittenbender said, “and with the right conditions on the right day, if a fire were to start, it would rapidly progress to the point where we would need an extensive amount of resources to control it before it caused impact to the community.”

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During a prescribed burn, most of the flames only come from ankle to knee-high. In some spots, they come up to your chest. The idea is to clear out all of the underbrush, so if there is a wildfire, the flames won’t reach to the top of the trees. That is when things get out of control.

Concerns about global warming cause many climatologists to fear that forest fires will become more frequent and intense in the future.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service continues to research the best practices in managing the state’s 3 million acres of forest.

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“They’re constantly doing climate work and doing research on fuels management,” Gerber said.

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Officials say the best way to prevent forest fires around your home is to keep your yard and lawn clear of any debris.