AUGUSTA — The tens of thousands of Mainers relying on free online open-burn permits are breaking the law, Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico said Tuesday.
Denico said the private systems some rely on to avoid a $7 charge for a permit issued by the state fail to meet statutory requirements.
As a result, he said, those who use them “are committing a Class E crime each time they conduct a burn with one of these invalid permits.”
Denico also warned that bypassing the Forest Service threatens to unleash more wildfires in Maine.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said Denico is wrong. “He’s being irresponsible,” he said, and scaring people for no reason.
“Don’t be a dictator,” he said of the forest chief. “This is a pure power play.”
Lawmakers pushed through a measure last summer that sought to cement the legality of privately issued permits that some towns have adopted. As far as the Maine Forest Service is concerned, though, that hasn’t happened.
Denico said the Legislature mandated that private software systems for burn permits, which many town fire chiefs rely on, must meet “all statutory requirements for issuing burn permits.” He said they’re falling short, according to the Forest Service.
Saviello said that Denico wants to ensure that forest service burning guidelines are a part of the permitting process, including such issues as having hoses available. He said that’s not a bad idea, but it’s not the law.
If the Forest Service wants to add requirements administratively, Saviello said, it can go through the legal process for adding them. Denico has never done that, he said.
Denico said legislators need to take another crack at overhauling the law.
State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, one of the law’s strongest supporters, said there is very little chance that the Legislature will repeal the law.
“Fire chiefs in my district tell me that the private online permit systems work well to promote safety and efficiency in our communities,” Bellows said in a statement she emailed Tuesday evening. “That’s why we in the Legislature authorized private online permit systems last summer, and the Maine Forest Service is wrong to scare Mainers into thinking they’re committing a crime by doing something the Legislature approves.”
Bellows said she has no reason to believe that the Maine Forest Service could do a better job of issuing online burn permits.
“Maine Forest Service should be working with local fire departments and the Maine-based businesses that offer this online service to find a solution that works for everyone rather than using scare tactics to shut down something that’s working really well in our state,” Bellows said.
Denico had a different opinion.
“Maine residents should have a single, safe, user-friendly and free system to obtain burn permits online,” he said. “Unfortunately, that system does not exist.”
“The situation Maine citizens now face is confusing, discriminatory and may be leading to an increase in the number of fires that get out of hand,” Denico said.
“The consequences posed by escaped outdoor burns are too great to risk the current and expanded use of unlawful, private online systems,” he said.
Denico said there is “a simple legislative fix that will ensure outdoor burns are conducted responsibly and allow Mainers to keep their $7.”
Legislators merely need to repeal the $7 fee for each burn permit issued by the state’s online system, he said.
“The change is critical as private online systems have issued permits at times not authorized” by the Forest Service that have resulted in wildfires, he said.
Denico said that in the midst of winter it may be hard to appreciate the need to address the issue, but come spring, fires will return. He said the state averages 500 wildfires annually and issued more than 100,000 burn permits.
Most of the permits are issued through town fire chiefs, many of them relying on the private online systems that towns pay to use instead of doing the work themselves. Saviello said in Farmington and some other towns, the online system is the only one available.
The Forest Service is responsible for controlling wildfires, he said, and takes that job seriously.
“The best way to minimize the risk to people and property from outdoor fires is to ensure that outdoor burns are conducted only when conditions are safe,” Denico said.
Until recent times, he said, “Maine had an effective, singular system in place for burn permit approval” with the Forest Service director determining when conditions were safe for outdoor burning.
Until 2005, permits were given on paper but an online system was created to expand options for people. To pick up some revenue, legislators decided the permits would cost $7 each.
But in recent years, some private outfits have started leasing software to towns to issue burn permits for free. After some controversy, legislators agreed last summer on an emergency basis to allow them to continue as long as they were safe.
Six months later, though, the Forest Service said it has determined the private systems are not working out.
Denico said the service has confirmed with the Attorney General’s Office that permits issued by the private software are not legal. But Saviello said conversations with state lawyers concluded just the opposite.
Saviello said he is tired of the games Denico is playing related to the permits.
“Why are we destroying something that works?” Saviello asked. He said lawmakers will take action swiftly to make sure the system remains in place if that proves necessary.
Burning brush (Maine Forest Service)