Maine Forest Service helicopters were back at work Wednesday, dropping 250-gallon loads of water on persistent, hard-to-reach woods fires feeding on the seasonally dry conditions.

The forest rangers’ Huey helicopter made 30 water drops on a fire in Lewiston on Tuesday, which burned 32 acres around a Central Maine Power Co. transmission line off College Street.

On Wednesday, the forest service dispatched a fire-suppression helicopter to Woodstock to help control a fire burning about 10 acres in a remote logging area.

Spring may be mud season, but until new growth sprouts from grasses and undergrowth, it’s also brush-fire season.

“It’s been a dry spring season, even though we get these cold spells,” said District Ranger Gregg Hesslein, one of the rangers responsible for southern Maine. “We’ve had a much more windy spring than we did last year for instance.”

The cold snaps have kept the number of fires so far this year at 192, just short of a total of 200 at the same time last year.

Even after a rain, wind dries out dead plant matter, making it easier to catch fire, and once a fire is burning, winds make it spread fast.

“The fine fuels — needles and leaves — are the fuel that burns quickly,” Hesslein said. “After a rain, within an hour’s time, these fine fuels are typically ready to burn again, and they’re fast burning. Almost any source can get them burning.”

In early spring, several brush fires started when people dumped out wood stove ashes that still had hot embers, Hesslein said. Right now, the concern is backyard burning without a permit.

Of the 192 brush fires in Maine this spring, which have burned 361 acres, 84 were the result of people burning debris, he said.

Most of Maine was designated a Category 4 fire danger Wednesday, meaning no outdoor burning is permitted and no permits would be issued.

The state describes Category 4 conditions as: “Fires start easily from all causes, and immediately after ignition, spread rapidly and increase quickly in intensity. Spot fires are a constant danger. …”

Southern coastal Maine is designated Class 3, which means residents can obtain permits from the state but only to burn after 5 p.m. when the winds have died down, temperatures drop and relatively humidity starts to go up.

“We are pretty much going to be in pretty high fire danger till we green up and that’s the same every spring,” Hesslein said.

The forest service uses helicopter water drops to knock down a fire so ground firefighters can attack it, Hesslein said. Pilots also will drop water in front of a moving fire to slow it down, he said.

Woods fires pose a special challenge for municipal departments, which focus training on responding to structure fires.

Fire officials in Lewiston summoned mutual aid from surrounding small towns that had some of the all-terrain vehicles, off-road water tankers and other wilderness firefighting equipment needed to get at the fire a mile from College Street.

Warm sunny days will eventually lessen the fire danger.

“Just like planting a garden, the ground has to warm up before the grasses are going to start growing, pushing new growth up through the old and that really is what will help ease the fire danger down a little bit,” Hesslein said.


Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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