There have been more wildfires in Maine so far in 2012 than in all of 2011.

That’s hard to believe, since some of us are still soggy from last week’s drenching rains, but less than two months ago the Maine Forest Service was warning of dangerously dry conditions after a low-snow winter, unseasonably high temperatures and brisk Spring winds.

As we’ve watched dozens of acres and hundreds of buildings go up in flames in Colorado and New Mexico in recent days, it’s worth considering Maine’s fire threat.

The average cost of wildfires in Maine every year, not including property damage, is nearly $500,000. Could we, if the fire rate continues, be on track to exceed that cost?

We can only blame ourselves.

Ninety percent of all forest fires in Maine are caused by — you guessed it — people. The chief cause is carelessness, when people allow burning debris to escape a fire they have set, like a backyard brush fire.

The fire in Colorado, where residents have endured years of drought, was termed “zero percent contained” late Monday, even with more than 600 firefighters battling the flames. The situation there is truly dire, with no relief from rain in sight.

Fortunately for us, most of the fires in Maine are small and we are far from drought, but, according to the National Weather Service, recent precipitation amounts more closely match the drier years between 1996 and 2004 than the higher-than-average rain and snowfall between 2005 and 2010.

There’s not enough to say we’re in a drought cycle, but it’s enough to be wary as we enter the high-fire-danger months of summer and fall.

The worst wildfire in Maine burned nearly half of the forestland on the eastern side Mount Desert Island in October 1947 — one of the driest times on record — damaging some 205,678 acres in Bar Harbor and nearby Acadia National Park, destroying 851 permanent homes and 397 seasonal cottages, and killing 16 people.

That fire, like most others, was believed to have been caused by people.

It was, according to news reports at the time, “the year Maine burned.”

And it was, according to the national Wildland Fire Coordinating Group, the impetus for many communities to embrace firefighting agreements with neighboring states and provinces, which led to the nation’s first fire protection compact, known as the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact.

It is a similar interstate compact implemented across the Great Plains that has brought so many firefighters and so much equipment to assist in Colorado this week.

When fire burns on the scale we’re seeing there, it’s much more than lost acreage.

It’s the potential loss of life, loss of homes and businesses, the contamination of air quality, the cost of rising insurance rates and the emotional cost of true fear.

The spring has brought warmer-than-average and drier-than-average weather to most of this country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and we can all expect to experience moderate to extreme drought conditions like we saw in 2000. That year was the worst wildfire season in history, when dry conditions fueled the destruction of 7.2 million acres in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.

Knowing that people cause most of these fires, we all have an exceptional obligation to be diligent about controlling debris and ash from brush fires, campfires and cook fires.

If not to protect forestland, property, people and animals, then do it because — in Maine — the law holds you responsible for any fire you start and for costs and damages associated with that fire.

Lose control of your fire? Expect to burn some cash.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.