More than 70 Maine municipalities and thousands of residents no longer have access to free open burn permits online now that the Maine Forest Service has decided such permits are invalid.

Fire chiefs in central Maine said the Forest Service is likely taking on the state’s entire fire service by eliminating access to a service they find more useful than the state’s online permit system, which charges $7 per permit.

In a letter sent to municipal officials last week, Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service, said that the private online systems issuing online permits were not authorized by the director of the Maine Forest Service, which is responsible for issuing and enforcing burning permits across the state.

The letter identifies two services that have been issuing free permits: Wardensreport.com and BurningPermit.com.

The people who run the sites were surprised by the move, saying the Maine Forest Service has been aware of what they do since they started.

Wardensreport.com was launched by two West Gardiner firefighters, Gary Hickey II and Chris McLaughlin, in 2013. Hickey said on Monday that he went to the Maine Forest Service and the state Attorney General’s Office and received a go-ahead after a review by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Hickey, who is now chief of the West Gardiner Fire Department and a full-time firefighter in Gardiner, said Warden’s Report was developed to save money for his town and its residents.

“We used to pay people to issue burn permits,” he said. Every year, the town paid out $700 each to three fire wardens. With Warden’s Report, towns can pay $75 to give their residents the convenience of online free access to burn permits, and the system gives local fire authorities the ability to control when burn permits are issued.

Matthew Scott started BurningPermit.com a decade ago with the help of a software developer.

Scott, who has been a member of the Gorham Fire Department for 25 years, said his service, which provides fire chiefs with a web-based platform to issue online permits and manage the data, started under a contract with the state.

But now state officials say there are problems.

“Any resident burning without a valid permit issued or authorized by the MFS is committing a Class E crime and is subject to enforcement action,” the letter from Whitcomb and Denico states. “The Department does not recognize the validity of these private online systems nor does it consider valid any permit issued by a private, online system. We request that your community immediately discontinue its use of these systems.”

LEGAL AUTHORITY

In Maine, anyone burning brush, wood debris, grass or agricultural fields must have a permit issued either by the Maine Forest Service or their city or town.

The Forest Service imposes a number of regulations on how and when open burns may take place; the state limits them to after 5 p.m., but local fire chiefs have discretion to allow them at other times.

Under state law, the director of the Maine Forest Service may delegate his or her authority to town forest fire wardens and their deputies for paper permits only, which the Forest Service supplies. State residents may obtain a paper permit at no cost, or they may obtain one from a Maine forest ranger.

Also spelled out in state law is the instruction to the director to create one statewide internet-based fire permit system with associated fees.

Kent Nelson, forest ranger specialist with the Maine Forest Service, acknowledged Monday that the Forest Service allowed small privately owned permit systems to be developed “in error.”

What changed the status quo, he said, was a fire in April.

An online permit had been issued that allowed the permit seeker to begin burning at 9 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., he said, the fire had escaped, destroying a garage and an apartment.

The timing of fires is important, Nelson said. The restriction is in place because during the day is when temperatures tend to be at their highest, relative humidity at its lowest and the wind tends blow more.

In Maine, he said many smaller communities have volunteer fire departments whose members work out of town and generally are not around to fight fires during the day.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” Nelson said. “But I think we need to go with the state system.”

Municipal firefighters disagree.

Falmouth Fire Chief Howard Rice said his town contracted with Warden’s Report about two years ago. Falmouth residents have told him that they find the online service convenient and easy to use, primarily because they no longer had to drive to the police station to obtain a paper burn permit.

“We’ve been encouraging people to use it,” Rice said. “It can save people a lot of time and hassle.”

Rice said he was disappointed and surprised by the state’s decision, which he only became aware of Monday after receiving a letter from the state.

He said the online service was monitored by his department, which could stop issuing burn permits on high fire danger days.

Windham Fire Chief Brent Libby also serves on the board of directors for the Maine Fire Chief’s Association. Like Rice, Libby said he learned about the online services being shut down on Monday. He expects the state association to push back.

Pittston Fire Chief Jason Farris said he’s been chief for 14 years, and Warden’s Report is easily one of the top three things that makes his job easier and increases the safety and ease of taxpayers in his town.

When Warden’s Report started, Farris said the number of illegal burns in Pittston dropped.

“People were doing everything they were supposed to except getting a burn permit,” he said.

He likes the controls he can impose on whether permits are issued. If it’s a bad day for an open burn, he can use an app to block any permits from being issued and residents aren’t responsible for knowing that. He can also set limits for the number of permits that can be issued at any one time, depending on weather conditions or staffing constraints.

The service also allows fire officials to flag the names of people banned from getting burn permits.

THE REVENUE QUESTION

Fire officials and others say they wonder whether revenue is the driving factor.

“Money has nothing to do with it,” Nelson said. “We want to provide a safe and convenient system that we can monitor and keep control of easily.”

If there is to be any change, Nelson said it will have to come from the Maine Legislature.

In the meantime, Hickey has blocked access to his site and he urged people to call their state representatives.

That tactic may be effective. At around 6 p.m. Hickey posted on his Facebook page that state Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, had set up a meeting with Warden’s Report and Gov. Paul LePage’s staff on Tuesday.

Bellows later confirmed the planned meeting.

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.

Jessica Lowell can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

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