GILEAD — A fire that was apparently caused by a person and burned about 5 acres on Tumbledown Dick Mountain on Wednesday and Thursday was Maine's 150th wildlands fire, Lt. Jeffrey Currier said Thursday.
Many have been small, "but we jump on them very quickly," said Currier, Southern District ranger for the Maine Forest Service.
Currier said the spring fire season began two or three weeks earlier than usual. Normally, it occurs in April and May.
The largest fires — those in the 20-acre range — have been in the Down East area, but fires are starting in Western Maine and are expected to continue.
Officials are urging people to be extremely careful.
"We do think there's a human element involved here, so I guess the message here is just, 'Please don't have any fires out of doors now,'" said Kent Nelson, a Maine Forest Service fire-prevention specialist.
"We're in a red-flag-day situation and we don't have any predicted rainfall or precipitation for several days here," he said.
The National Weather Service has issued a red-flag warning for parts of Maine, indicating high danger for fires due to dry, windy conditions.
To protect against woods fires when the warning is lifted, Currier urged people to get burning permits for fires.
People should adhere to permit restrictions because the consequences could include more than getting a summons from a ranger, he said.
"If their fire escapes and they are found in violation of open-burning laws, they can be liable for all the suppression costs and they can be held liable for restitution for any damage," Currier said.
The Gilead fire was considered extinguished, thanks to Thursday's efforts, he said. Crews will patrol Friday and Saturday to ensure that it's out and to determine its cause.
"If I was to guess, (the cause was) some sort of improper disposal of lighting materials or some sort of illegal campfire, because it gets a heavy recreational use up there," Currier said.
The fire flared up Wednesday afternoon on cliff-covered terrain that's popular with rock climbers, said Sgt. Gregg Hesslein, a Maine Forest Service district ranger.
Early Thursday, crews began working their way up the rugged mountain as a helicopter dumped water on hot spots in steep, rocky terrain.
"We're going to do a lot with the helicopter to keep our people out of harm's way," Hesslein said at a command center on North Road.
Maine Forest Service pilot Jeff Miller flew multiple sorties in a refurbished Vietnam-era Huey helicopter. He picked up 200 gallons of water from the nearby Androscoggin River and dropped it at the head of the creeping surface fire. Each run took three to four minutes, Nelson said.
Light snow had fallen during the night, helping with firefighting efforts.
Fire officials said they hit hot spots early with the helicopter while the relative humidity was high. They tried to knock down the fire before afternoon winds blew even harder. That strategy paid off.
"We're scaling back, because they made such good progress," Currier said.
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