Flames burn about an acre of woods in Skinner Township in northern Franklin County on Wednesday, Sept. 23. It took firefighters, state forest rangers and logging crews about 10 hours to extinguish it. Eustis Fire Department photo

STATE — The Maine Forest Service will not be issuing online burn permits for the foreseeable future and is encouraging towns to do likewise.

A Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Facebook post made the announcement Thursday, Sept. 25. Later that day, State Forester and Farmington resident Patty Cormier spoke about the situation in a phone interview.

“It’s the weather, lack of rain. The wind we’re getting that’s a little bit scary,” she said.

According to a report in the Bangor Daily News Thursday, the water level in the Piscataquis River is the lowest it has been in 117 years.

Fire chiefs and wardens are being encouraged to not issue permits and some towns may have ordinances covering open burning/burn piles, Cormier said.

“The permits cover burn piles such as debris, burn piles and brush,” she said. “Campfires are still permitted although permits are required from the state for remote sites as is landowner permission.”

As of Monday, 923 fires had burned 984 acres in the state, Cormier said.

“When we reach 1,000 acres that will match the 20 year high. We usually have 500 a year,” she said. “We’ve had more this week.

“It’s been a crazy year for sure. Within the Maine Forest Service we have good capacity, are handling what’s coming up.”

Later Thursday, Cormier sent a message saying the 1,000 acre mark had been reached. Last year there were around 365, she said Friday.

I’m surprised the governor hasn’t done a red flag with the state as well,” Farmington Fire Chief Terry Bell said in a phone interview, and added that the town is not issuing burn permits at this time.

The top 3 reasons for fires are a debris fire escaping/getting out of hand, equipment and improper extinguishing of camp fires, she said.

“If someone is smoking while on an ATV, throws the butt thinking it’s out, a fire can happen very quickly,” Cormier said.

Loggers can help avoid fires by keeping equipment properly maintained with catalytic converters and being aware of rocks that could be hit, she said.

A woods fire in northern Franklin County Wednesday that burned about an acre was caused by a harvester hitting a rock.

Rangeley Fire Chief Mike Bacon said that despite drought and dry conditions that many parts of the state has been experiencing, the town is still issuing permits if the region is at a moderate or lower level as declared by Maine’s Fire Service daily fire weather report.

It’s dryer than normal, but we don’t have the humidity levels that the coast zones are having. With the higher humidity, you have increased burns. Earlier in the week we were at a higher level and we were not allowing permits at all,” Bacon said in a phone interview on September 25. 

Strong Fire Chief Duayne Boyd said that the town follows the guidelines posted by the Maine Forest Service, but will make adjustments based on local conditions, much like Rangeley.

“Sometimes it’s different because this area might get rain for a day or two and southern Maine might not,” Boyd said in a phone interview. “So it all depends, but normally we try to follow suit as far as what their guidelines are.” 

Boyd added that small, backyard fires in pits or rings are still permitted at this time, and that Strong hasn’t had fires related to drought conditions over the summer.

Some towns such as Wilton and Livermore Falls direct residents to apply for burn permits on the Maine Forest Service’s online platform and are therefore, not issuing permits at this time.

“Ours are automatically controlled by the fire weather day. They automatically turn on and turn off, and given how dry it is, they’re turned off,” Livermore Falls Fire Chief Edward Hastings IV said about burn permit applications, in a phone interview.

Comier emphasized the caution that must be taken when starting a fire, regardless of how low the fire danger levels may be at any given day.

“Be mindful, especially with campfires,” Cormier said. “I like to say, ‘You put it out. If you think it’s out, put it out again.’

“Fires can be expensive and costly to the person. Structures can get involved, possibly loss of life, fire departments called out. It’s a dangerous thing Please be careful.”

The dynamics of the coronavirus may also be an issue this year, Cormier said.

“We’ve done well to encourage people to get out and enjoy the woods, but people might not have background knowledge on camping,” she said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that.”

Fire chiefs in the Oxford Hills communities are urging residents to comply with the Maine Forest Service burning ban.

“We issue very few permits ourselves,” said Otisfield Fire Chief Kyle Jordan. “Most people go through the state’s website. My concern is that some people will continue burning brush even if they cannot get a permit. Our towns make it very simple for people to know the procedure and still the first thing we hear when responding to brush fires is ‘I didn’t know I needed a permit.’

“Frankly, that is not a good enough excuse in this day and age. Right now it’s neither safe nor legal for an outside burn.”

The Otisfield Fire Department responded to a couple of minor brush fires in town and has provided mutual aid to several surrounding towns throughout September.

The town of Paris stopped issuing permits as of Sept. 20, days ahead of the Maine Forest Service, after handling eight fires during the weeks leading up to the ban. Hebron, which has had no brush fires getting out of control this month, stopped in early September. Since the state’s ban on Sept. 25 local requests have ticked up a bit, said Hebron’s Fire Chief James Trundy.

“I’ve been getting calls for them,” Trundy said on Friday. “Just this morning a campground wanted permission for campfires. My answer is ‘no.'”

Other towns in the area, Norway, Oxford and Harrison have followed the state’s ban and stopped issuing fire permits.

While Oxford has not had to put out any brush fires recently, Fire Chief Paul Hewey said that just last week his department responded to three smoke investigations that were found to be campfires. The people involved were all instructed to douse their fires.

With several days of rain in the immediate forecast, Hewey expects conditions to improve and danger levels to be lowered in the regional zones currently under burn bans.

“The town office and myself are not issuing any fire permits in Greenwood until further notice when we get some significant rainfall,” Greenwood Fire Chief Ken Cole said. “We’re in a super aggressive drought phase right now.”

After a busy spring, where Greenwood responded to many out of control burns, calls for brush fires in the area have receded some, according to Cole. Cole also said residents should not be doing any outdoor burning, period, even if it’s just a small campfire.

In West Paris, Fire Chief Troy Billings announced Thursday that the town has stopped issuing fire permits until further notice.

Bethel has also stopped issuing permits for the time being, member Robert Lowell said. Lowell is one of three members who issues permits for the department. Bethel Fire Chief Mike Jodrey said that even though currently campfires are still being permitted, he is strongly discouraging people from doing any sort of outdoor burning.

In Newry, Fire Chief Alan Fleet said they, along with Bethel, responded to a small fire on the Appalachian Trail in Grafton Notch State Park. It took the crew members 45 minutes to get to the fire. From there, they were able to take water from a nearby brook to help extinguish the flames. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “fires or other cooking and heating devices are permitted only in designated campsites or picnic areas.”

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