More than 70 Maine cities and towns and thousands of residents no longer have free online access to open burn permits now that the Maine Forest Service has said permits issued that way are invalid.

Fire chiefs in central Maine said the forest service is likely taking on the state’s fire departments by eliminating access to a service — known as the Warden’s Report — that they find more useful than the state’s own online permit system, which charges $7 for every permit issued.

Pittston Fire Chief Jason Farris said he’s been chief for 14 years, and Warden’s Report is easily one of the top three things that makes his job easier and increases the safety and ease of taxpayers in his town. When Warden’s Report started, Farris said the number of illegal burns in Pittston dropped.

“People were doing everything they were supposed to except getting a burn permit,” he said.

But state officials say the move is intended to make the process safer and more efficient.

“Money has nothing to do with it,” said Kent Nelson, forest ranger specialist with the Maine Forest Service. “We want to provide a safe and convenient system that we can monitor and keep control of easily.”

In a letter sent out to municipal officials at the end of last week, Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service, said that no private online system issuing online permits was developed or authorized by the director of the Maine Forest Service, which is responsible for issuing and enforcing burning permits across the state.

The letter identifies two services, Wardensreport.com and BurningPermit.com.

The people who run those organization were surprised by the move. They said the Maine Forest Service has been aware of what they do since they started.

Wardensreport.com was launched by two West Gardiner firefighters, Gary Hickey II and Chris McLaughlin in 2013. On Monday, Hickey said he went to the Maine Forest Service and the state Attorney General’s Office and received a go-ahead after a review by the state Attorney General’s Office.

BurningPermit.com is the development of Matthew Scott and a software developer, and it started a decade ago.

Scott, who has been a member of the Gorham Fire Department for 25 years, said his service, which provides fire chiefs with a web-based platform to issue online permits and manage the data, started under a contract with the state.

But now state officials say there are problems.

“Any resident burning without a valid permit issued or authorized by the MFS is committing a Class E crime and is subject to enforcement action,” the letter reads. “The Department does not recognize the validity of these private online systems nor does it consider valid any permit issued by a private, online system. We request that your community immediately discontinue its use of these systems.”

LEGAL AUTHORITY

In Maine, anyone burning brush, wood debris, grass or agricultural fields requires a permit issued either by the Maine Forest Service or their own city or town.

The Forest Service imposes a number of regulations on how and when open burns may take place; the state limits them to after 5 p.m., but local fire chiefs have discretion to allow them at other times.

Under state law, the director of the Maine Forest Service may delegate his or her authority to town forest fire wardens and their deputies for paper permits only, which the Forest Service supplies. State residents may obtain paper permit at no cost or they may obtain one from a Maine forest ranger.

Also spelled out in state law is the instruction to the director to create one statewide internet-based fire permit system with associated fees. That site is https://www13.informe.org/burnpermit.

Nelson acknowledged Monday that the Forest Service allowed small privately owned permit systems to be developed “in error.”

What changed the status quo, he said, was a fire in April.

An online permit had been issued that allowed the permit seeker to begin burning at 9 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., he said, the fire had escaped, destroying a garage and an apartment.

The timing of fires is important, Nelson said. The restriction is in place because during the day is when temperatures tend to be at their highest, relative humidity at its lowest and the wind tends blow more.

In Maine, he said many smaller communities have volunteer fire departments whose members work out of town and generally are not around to fight fires during the day.

While some communities choose to override the restrictions on allowable burn times, the responsibility remains with the resident seeking the permit to verify what the conditions are for burning.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” Nelson said. “But I think we need to go with the state system.”

Municipal firefighters disagree.

Hickey, who is now the chief of the West Gardiner Fire Department as well as being a full-time fire fighter in Gardiner, said Warden’s Report was developed to save money for his town and its residents.

“We used to pay people to issue burn permits,” he said. Every year, the town paid out $700 each to three fire wardens. With Warden’s Report, towns can pay $75 to give their residents the convenience of online free access to burn permits, and the system gives local fire authorities the ability to control when burn permits are issued.

Farris, the Pittston chief, said early criticism included the contention that people would use online burn permits to illegally burn trash, but that argument has no merit.

“They could do it anyway (with paper permits), you can’t stop that. But if you make it easy and user-friendly, people will use the system.”

He said he likes the controls he can impose on whether permits are issued. If it’s a bad day for an open burn, he can use an app to block any permits from being issued and residents aren’t responsible for knowing that. He can also set limits for the number of permits that can be issued at any one time, depending on weather conditions or staffing constraints.

The service also allows fire officials to flag the names of people banned from getting burn permits.

Farris has a clear preference for Warden’s Report because he said the state’s system is hard to navigate and data collected is hard to access.

In Pittston, taxpayers don’t even foot the $75 bill; the fire department uses money from redeemed cans and bottles it collects to pay for the service.

In Augusta, which subscribed to the service in 2014, the fire department posted a note on its Facebook page alerting residents that permits are still available for free from any of the city’s staffed fire stations.

“We will have to go back to what we used to do,” Augusta Deputy Chief Dave Groder said. “If we’re out of the station on call or in training, people will not be able to get a (free) one.”

THE REVENUE QUESTION

Fire officials and others say they wonder whether revenue is the driving factor.

Online permits acquired through the state site cost $7 each. With more and more communities signing up for the free online service, it represents a potential loss to the state on a portion of the permits issued each year.

As more and more communities subscribe, Nelson said there’s confusion over which system ought to be used. People will call the Forest Service to complain they can’t get a permit because the site is down.

When Nelson checks, it’s not the state’s site that’s down.

“The confusion is causing safety concerns. I respect all that the fire chiefs do,” he said, but going to a single, state-run site will eliminate confusion.

The issue underlying this move by the state is who has the authority to issue the permits. By state statute and a thorough review by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, Nelson said, it is the Maine Forest Service and not a privately owned system.

“When the economy was bad, initially it was about the money. We had to generate money or lose ranger positions. Now that 10 or 12 years have gone by, it’s about the safety.”

Of every $7 fee collected by the state, he said, $2 goes back to the municipality where it originated.

One of the challenges of the state system is that it’s one size fits all. Even so, he said the Forest Service has done a lot research and tweaking to arrive at a system that’s safe and convenient.

If there is to be any change, Nelson said it will have to come from the Maine Legislature.

In the meantime, Hickey has blocked access to his site and he urged people to call their state representatives.

That tactic may be effective. At around 6 p.m. Hickey posted on his Facebook page that state Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, had set up a meeting with Warden’s Report and LePage’s staff on Tuesday.

Bellows later confirmed the planned meeting.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

jlowell@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @JLowellKJ