The state may make all burn permits free.

“A free online system will increase the use of burn permits, increasing safety and ad  ding to our wildfire prevention efforts,” state Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, told the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

Dropping the $7 fee for online permits would “encourage safe burn practices, and alert local officials as to where a burn is happening,” Dill, who sponsored a bill to wipe out the charge, said.

The proposal had strong support during a previous legislative session, but ultimately failed when lawmakers were weighing the budget impacts of scores of different measures.

Maine law mandates that anybody burning brush and the like must have a permit from their municipality or the Maine Forest Service. Free permits are already available from towns, but the state’s online system carries a mandatory charge.

Jeffrey Currier, a ranger with the Forest Service, told the panel that ending the online fee would help prevent wildfires.

“When people seek and are issued a permit, it provides a great deal of important information to us and our firefighting partners,” Currier said.

“Forest rangers use our online permit system to regulate open burning, to identify friendly smokes, and to promote general awareness with our municipal fire partners on where out-of-door burning is occurring,” he said.

“We believe this requirement has contributed to our success in limiting the number of wildfires and thereby protecting life, property, and our state’s valuable natural resources,” Currier said.

Dropping the fee would also help blueberry growers.

Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said that driving around in Downeast Maine in late fall or early spring often provides views of “blackened, charred fields along the roadside, in some cases still smoking. These fields are examples of the traditional practice of burning wild blueberry fields after a harvest cycle.”

“After blueberry fields flower, produce fruit, and are harvested, the plants must be pruned to the ground in some fashion,” usually with a special mower nowadays, but not always, he said.

“Many fields, especially smaller, steeper, rocky fields that cannot be easily accessed by larger equipment, are still burned,” Venturini said.

Since outdoor burning requires a permit, he said, “The simpler the permitting process, the better.”

Passing the bill, Venturini said, “will encourage more wild blueberry farmers to take advantage of the online permitting process, saving their time and the time of their municipalities.”

“In this modern day and age, especially now when everyone is trying to limit their social interactions, removing any barriers to using the online system is key,” Dill said.

Currier said the cost of a permit “should not be a limiting factor for Mainers to use such a highly successful system when the end goal for all of us should be the prevention of wildfires.”

“We believe that the elimination of the fee will only increase the use of the system and, therefore, result in an even higher level of wildfire prevention success in Maine,” he said.

The proposed change would not interfere with privately-run online burning permit systems that some towns have adopted. Those municipalities pay a small fee to shop out the issuance of free permits.

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