AUGUSTA — The Maine Forest Service is warning residents in five towns to be alert to widespread infestations of browntail moth caterpillars.

Officials say the caterpillars are most prevalent in Topsham, Bath, West Bath, Brunswick and Bowdoinham.

Forest service entomologist Charlene Donahue says the caterpillar is toxic and can leave people with poison ivy-like skin rashes or respiratory problems.

She says moth counts rose sharply last year and that caterpillars are now emerging early from their nests because of the mild winter and the early warm spring.

Because there still isn’t much foliage on trees, she says the caterpillars are crawling up people’s homes, across lawns and onto shrubs and bushes in search of food.

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