Central Maine fire departments are being extra vigilant with burn permits, and at least one department is mulling getting businesses involved in keeping fire danger low during the drier than normal conditions.

The causes of fires when the weather is as dry and windy as it has been recently are numerous, fire safety officials across Kennebec, Somerset and Franklin counties said Monday, though none reported a surge in unseasonal ground fires that some areas of the state have seen. Common causes include campfires, cigarette butts, trains, lawnmowers and lightning strikes.

In Skowhegan, Fire Chief Shawn Howard said his department has been monitoring burn permits closely. If the wind is greater than 7 mph or if the fire danger rating is higher than Class 1 or 2, then no permits will be issued. The Maine Forest Service system rates days in five classes with 1 low, 2 moderate, 3 high, 4 very high and 5 extreme.

“We’re pretty harsh when it comes to permits. We regulate them hard,” Howard said Monday.

“Things have greened up nice, which does help, but it’s super dry and people need to be extremely cautious,” he said. “We haven’t had anything really. Anything we’ve had has been extremely small —a couple bark mulch fires, that sort of thing.”

Mulch fires are what has been keeping the Augusta Fire Department busy, said Chief Roger Audette, and he’s considering looking at ordinances that would make businesses accountable.

“Our biggest problem is the retail shopping centers that put down the mulch for decorative purposes,” Audette said Monday. “We are constantly going to a lot of these places because people flick their cigarettes in there and then the areas are smoldering. This stuff is basically fuel. We go out daily.”

Audette said that Augusta firefighters recently responded to mulch fires at Hannaford supermarket on Cony Circle, Shaw’s Plaza and at MaineGeneral Medical Center.

That’s prompted him to think about new rules to help cut down on the hazard.

“We are thinking of looking at creating some ordinances to create a system where businesses would have to pay if the fire department comes out to handle a bark mulch fire,” he said. “It creates a nuisance for us. It’s a problem for us when we’re doing 60 to 70 bark mulch fires a year.”

The warm winter with little snow has caused a surge of ground fires in some areas of the state, which typically do not flare up until August and September after the hottest and driest months, said Regional Forest Ranger Matt Gomes. The lack of snow means less residual moisture left in the soil. That combined with less rain than last spring means conditions are ripe for ground fires, he said.

David LaFountain, fire chief for Waterville and Winslow, said there haven’t been any reports of ground fires this spring in the area, but said they are tough to fight and often reported well after they’re underway.

He said those fires are often caused by lightning strikes. If lightning strikes in the woods, no one thinks anything about it until a couple of days later when smoke appears, he said.

Underground fires are “a whole different ballgame” to fight, and firefighters must bring gardening tools and a lot of digging equipment with them when they go out to battle them, LaFountain said.

“To me, that’s no fun,” he said. “If I wanted to dig, I’d be a gardener.”

In May, Forest Ranger Mark Rousseau told the Morning Sentinel the spring had been the busiest one the Forest Service has had in the last five years.

“This has been a very, very active season for us this spring throughout the entire state,” Rousseau said.

Lack of rain paired with a delayed green-up in vegetation mean the Forest Service is seeing fires started from things that typically wouldn’t start a fire, such as sparks from machinery or exhaust igniting dry brush on the side of the road.

While the Oakland Fire Department also hasn’t seen many ground fires this season, it has found more fire than normal because of the dry weather.

“Especially with towns where railroads run right through them, like Oakland, a spark from the tracks can start a fire,” said Ally Pow, a firefighter and an EMT.

Lawnmowers have also started fires when they’re put away while still hot with dry grass on them, she said.

At the Farmington Fire Department, Capt. Tim Hardy said he and his crew are just “taking it day by day” issuing burn permits as temperatures rise and brush and grass get drier.

“We’re always keeping track of the weather and what the fire class day is and wind conditions,” said Hardy. He said there was a grass fire last week in New Sharon, but so far the region has been lucky.

Waterville’s LaFountain cautioned that people should ask themselves whether they really need a campfire, and if they do have one, they should make sure to really douse the ashes with water afterward and make sure the fire and its embers are completely out.

LaFountain, as well as Pow, Howard and Somerset County Emergency Management Director Mike Smith, said that those who want to have a fire should check the fire danger class day.

Pow said that if the fire danger is high, those making a residential campfire should be more cautious. If it’s especially windy, people shouldn’t be making a fire at all, Pow said.

Smith cautioned area residents to be mindful of campfires and smoking materials, even on a Class 1 or 2 fire danger day.

He cautioned people to use common sense.

“Ashes or cigarettes butts or anything like that could cause a problem,” he said.

Staff writers Doug Harlow, Amy Calder, Madeline St. Amour and Jason Pafundi contributed to this story.


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