AUGUSTA — Even as a bill that would allow state residents to secure burn permits from private online services heads to the office of Gov. Paul LePage for his signature, the Maine Forest Service is warning residents about the dangers of using those services, particularly during the upcoming holiday weekend.

That’s when the number of escaped fires peaks, John Bott, director of communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Wednesday.

The department sent a letter earlier this month urging cities and towns to stop using the online services provided by Warden’s Report and Burning Permits because they are not sanctioned by the state.

According to the Maine Forest Service, there are only two ways to obtain a valid open burn permit in Maine. One is a paper version that’s issued locally. The other is through the Forest Service’s own online service, at , which costs $7. Permits issued through the state limit fires to taking place only after 5 p.m.

“We have a dangerous situation when you have a law that states one state agency can issue permits, and instead there are several other profit-making entities doing it,” he said.

Among the Forest Service’s concerns are that people who are not trained appropriately could issue online permits, and that the burn permit is a legal document that’s required to be administered by the forest service.

More than 70 Maine cities and towns and thousands of residents no longer have free online access to open burn permits since the forest service made its decision. Both of those companies contacted state lawmakers, and although that push resulted in emergency legislation that passed Wednesday, Bott said it came with no public hearings or committee work. “There was no discussion of the safest, most efficient an cost-effective way possible.”

The two companies have been offering their services for years, and with full knowledge of the Forest Service; the service has since acknowledged they were allowed erroneously to operate. A review by the state attorney general’s office concluded the sole authority to issue online permits rests with the Forest Service.

Gary Hickey II, who runs Warden’s Report, said he was pleased about the bill’s passage.

“It shows the support we have across the state from the people who are using the service,” Hickey said. “We can continue to grow and continue to offer this free service. It’s clear we have developed a program that works.”

Once the bill becomes law, Hickey said, he plans to contact the Forest Service to see whether they can work together to offer the service to the rest of the state.

It’s not clear that will happen.

The Forest Service has cited several instances this spring in which officials say brush pile burns permitted through private online systems have escaped, causing property damage and in one case resulted in a summons being issued to a property owner. Those fires, officials say, occurred because the permits were issued for a time during the day, which they say is when most escaped fires happen. Under state rules, no one can burn until 5 p.m.

Fire chiefs, however, say these permits issued through private sites pose no more danger than state-issued permits.

“Quite the contrary,” said Chief Richard Morse, of the South China Volunteer Fire Department. Morse is also the fire warden for the town of China.

“It’s safer, because more people are obeying the law,” he said. “People are smart enough to use their heads. They want to do what’s right. If you make it difficult, they will just do what they want.”

While the Forest Service is governed by safety, state lawmakers see it as service to state residents.

“The Legislature shouldn’t be in the business of making it hard to conduct routine business with government,” Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, said in a statement issued Wednesday. Dill is the lead Senate Democrat on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “Passing this law will ensure that local government practices that are working just fine are allowed to continue working without needless interference from Augusta.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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.

filed under: