Steve Davis throws wood from an old building onto a burning pile in June 2017 behind his home on Lower Ridge Road in Fairfied. Davis said the wet conditions are ideal for burning. With the passage of L.D. 1809, burn permits can be obtained free from a private source online, Warden’s Report. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

On Wednesday, Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson issued a ban on open fires in the city and said no burn permits will be issued.

Some years, dry spring conditions can shut down open burns, but this year halting the spread of coronavirus, the highly infectious virus that causes COVID-19, is also a factor.

Not every municipality has shut down spring burns, but as the number of burn permits issued is spiking, local and state fire officials are keeping a sharp eye on conditions.

Nelson said the trigger for him was a 5-acre brush fire in South Gardiner on March 21, an indication that fast-changing conditions could cause controlled burns to spread.

“The other piece of that was in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions and distancing, I had to call mutual aid, and I had 30-plus firefighters working close to each other to put the fire out,” he said.

Even before Gov. Janet Mills issued a mandatory stay-at-home order Tuesday that took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, demand for burn permits was spiking.

Gary Hickey II, co-founder of the Warden’s Report website, which allows municipal fire officials to issue burn permits online for free, said the number of permits issued this year through last weekend was about 8,000, including 1,600 during the weekend. Last year, through the same time period, 3,000 had been issued.

Hickey said about 15 communities have signed up to use the online service since concern about coronavirus has closed down most public buildings, including fire stations, to the public. While online services have automated the process of getting a burn permit, fire wardens are still able to issue them on paper, but that requires an in-person transaction. Among the latest to join are Benton, Bremen, Clinton, Jefferson and West Paris, with applications pending for several more.

The Maine Forest Service has also seen a spike in demand.

“This is usually our busiest time of year,” Kent Nelson, a forest ranger specialist, said.

So far in 2020, the Maine Forest Service has issued 4,400 permits online, compared to 1,600 for the same period a year ago.

Maine has third option for online burn permits. Burningpermit.com owner Matthew Scott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The evidence suggest that Maine residents with more time on their hands under social restrictions imposed by public health officials are looking for ways to keep busy. The increase could also be due to the lack of snow cover hanging on at winter’s end. No permit is required when the ground is covered with snow.

“If I could talk to a person requesting a burn permit,” Kent Nelson said, “I would say, ‘Yeah, I could give it to you today, but if your fire gets away, you’re putting a first responder at risk. You’re taking them from their home into the fire department (and to the fire). Can you wait until June when everything is green and moist?'”

And when a first responder is called to an escaped burn, he said, they are not able to respond to more critical calls.

The decision to allow open burns rests with local fire officials, who decide from day to day if the conditions are appropriate to allow for burns. In Maine, open burns are allowed after 5 p.m., but local fire officials have the ability to allow them during the day if conditions permit.

Kent Nelson said the state’s forest fire danger report, which posts fire conditions across the state, is expected to be online in about a week. Until it’s live, he said, the fire danger is set to low, and fire chiefs, who are most familiar with local conditions, can decide whether to allow burns.

In Chelsea, Fire Chief Shawn Ramage said he’s trying, when possible, to let people burn during the day.

“I haven’t noticed a day when we’ve issued 10 permits and not two, because we’ve spread it out,” he said. “I have no problem issuing permits today (Thursday) when it’s raining. But Saturday, if it’s windy and dry again, I may shut it off. I don’t want to risk having people to go a call if we don’t have to.”

Al Nelson said he’s likely to leave the fire ban in place longer than he normally would otherwise. He’s extending the ban to any outside burning, including backyard fires to eliminate the possibility for infection among at casual get-togethers.

“The town fire warden has the ability to shut off all burning, and that’s what I’m doing,” Al Nelson said.

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