Augusta Fire Department Lt. Don Genest, right, and Chelsea Fire Chief Shawn Ramage extinguish flames in a pine tree at a blaze Tuesday in Augusta. Unseasonably dry, mild weather has created conditions for wood fires across Maine. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — On Tuesday, firefighters from three communities knocked down a brush fire near the Augusta-Chelsea line. On Wednesday, a small grass fire in Rome drew firefighters from three other communities.

Every spring, disappearing snow and warmer temperatures combine to bring on the start of fire season in Maine and judging by the wildland fires reported so far this year, 2021 is on pace to beat the record set by fires in 2020.

“As of April 14 in 2020, we had 112 fires that had burned 94.7 acres,” Maine’s Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton said. “And so far this year we have had 163 fires that burned 122 acres. We’re quite a bit ahead of where we were last year.”

In the last week, brush fires were reported in Dresden, Athens, Oakland, Whitefield and Starks, among other places.

Hamilton said about 47% of the fires about which the Forest Service has data so far this year have been escaped debris fires. Equipment, camping, smoking, railroads, utilities or arson account for the remaining 53%.

“Last year we had more fires than in any year in the past 35 years prior to that,” he said. “We had 1,157 fires that burned 1,042 acres.”

This year, he said, an early spring contributed to the conditions that have fostered the fires across the region and across the state. The spring fire season begins as the snow line recedes from southern Maine and along the coast to western and northern Maine. The retreating snow uncovers the debris from last year’s growing season that was marked by moderate to severe droughts and rain in the fall.

“If you look at the last 365 days and compare where we would be normally, we’re several inches short of where we normally would be,” he said, citing data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We have been pretty dry, especially for the last month or so,” Michael Clair, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Gray office, said Tuesday.

So far in 2021, the Kennebec County area is experiencing a 3-inch precipitation deficit, he said, but that’s not enough to push the region into drought conditions, Clair said. A weather system pushing through New England will probably bring some rain or snow to central New Hampshire or southern Maine later this week, but it’s not expected to move very far north into the state.

In the longer term, the Climate Prediction Center is not currently seeing any strong indications of changing weather patterns through the end of June for either drier or wetter conditions.

“That’s just kind of a general outlook for the next few months,” he said.

So far, only a stretch of northern Oxford, Somerset and Franklin counties along the Canadian border are abnormally dry as well as coastal regions of Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Hancock and York counties through last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

“Just because we’re a little below normal now doesn’t mean we won’t make up for it in the next couple months,” Clair said. “If it’s part of a trend, it becomes a little more of a bigger deal.”

Augusta Fire Department Battalion Chief Scott Dunbar, right, Forest Ranger Aaron Bailey and AFD Lt. Don Genest search trees and in the woods for hotspots after suppressing a blaze Tuesday in Augusta. Unseasonably dry, mild weather has created conditions for woods fires across Maine. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

On Tuesday, Augusta Fire Battalion Chief Scott Dunbar said fire crews from Augusta, Windsor, Chelsea and Togus, as well as the Maine Forest Service, responded to 161 Mud Mill Road for an uncontrolled burn that got out of hand and burned between a half-acre and an acre.

“The good thing this time of year is that the undersoil is still quite wet,” Dunbar said, “so if you get a burn, it’s typically surface burning.”

Even with the dry conditions, the wildfire danger report for most of the state was moderate across the state Wednesday. Those fire conditions govern whether open burn permits can be issued for people interested in burning brush.

Warden’s Report, an online service that municipal fire officials in many communities across Maine use to issue permits has generated 15,350 permits so far this year. That’s an increase over last year at this time, when 12,000 permits had been issued, site developer and firefighter Gary Hickey II said.

“If Warden’s Report and (the Maine Forest Service) is issuing permits, and people follow the permit guidelines, it should be all right,” Dunbar said.

But inattention, particularly on days with windy conditions like Tuesday, can lead to fires getting out of control, Dunbar said.

“Sometimes they’ll go off and do something else, and it doesn’t take much for it to get out of control,” he said.

Hamilton said a recent long-range prediction he saw indicated temperatures about normal but below normal rainfall through August.

“The best summary I can give you is that we’re ahead of last year’s record-setting year at this point,” he said. “If we experience weather patterns like we did last year and the same kind of conditions, we can expect the same kind of fire activity we had last year.”

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