Talis Jordans burns leaves and limbs Thursday afternoon in the yard at his Pittston home. Jordans says he finds the process of getting an online permit easy and convenient when he has brush to burn. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

PITTSTON — When Talis Jordans decided to burn Thursday, he did not give it a second thought.

Jordans went to the online platform his town uses to issue burn permits, filled out the form and was ready to go in a few minutes.

Now, anyone across Maine can do virtually the same thing, thanks to a law that went into effect earlier this month that puts the state’s burn permit system on the same footing at the privately operated systems that cities and towns have been using for nearly a decade.

“I find it a great victory for Maine residents who can now leverage technology to replace antiquated systems,” Matthew Scott, a firefighter in Gorham, said Thursday.

Scott developed BurningPermit.com, an online platform now used by a dozen communities in Maine.

“The electronic service should always have been free for convenience and streamlining of the data management as a service to the communities of the state,” he said.

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The law — L.D. 268 — ends the $7 fee the Maine Forest Service had been charging for online burn permits, making the single-day permits free of charge. It also allows privately operated systems to charge municipalities for their service if they choose.

“It’s kind of a victory for all of us,” Gary Hickey II said. “We’re not stopping what we do.”

Hickey was a firefighter in West Gardiner when he and another firefighter went to work on what would become Warden’s Report, an online platform that allowed fire chiefs to issue burn permits without residents having to track down the chief or a fire warden to get a paper permit.

The goal of the service was to save money. With the online platform, towns would no longer have to pay fire wardens to issue paper permits, and residents would no longer have to pay $7 to get a permit from the state Forest Service.

While the Maine Forest Service had been aware of both the Warden Report and BurningPermit.com, the service said in 2017 it had allowed those services to be developed “in error,” and worked to discourage their use.

Maine Forest Service officials sent letters to more than 70 municipalities advising them not to use the private online sites and suggested residents might be guilty of a crime if they relied on those permits instead of using the state’s service.

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Forest Service officials maintained that the only legitimate option to obtain an online permit was through the Forest Service’s site, where at the time, two-day permits cost $7. A review by the Office of the Maine Attorney General had concluded that while state law allowed the authority to issue paper permits to be delegated to municipal fire chiefs and wardens, no such authority existed for using privately operated software or websites to issue permits.

Leaves and limbs burn Thursday in the yard at Talis Jordans’ house in Pittston. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Emergency legislation passed into law in July of that year allowed both companies to continue operating in Maine.

Even so, the dispute continued into 2018. The Maine Forest Service continued to defend permits issued on its website as the better option and discouraged the use of the private systems

In 2018, the Maine Legislature enacted a law that required the director of the Bureau of Forestry to allow communities to continue to use private services to issue burn permits if the software meets requirements spelled out in state law.

The Forest Service’s concern has been public safety. In Maine, open burns are allowed only after 5 p.m. While some communities choose to override the restrictions on allowable burn times, the responsibility remains with the resident seeking the permit to verify what the conditions are for burning.

The private platforms gave fire chiefs the ability to shut off burns if the conditions did not permit or for any other reason. They also gave them an easy way to check whether a reported fire was a controlled burn before dispatching firefighters. At the time, several fire chiefs across central Maine said they preferred Warden’s Report for its ease of use and availability of information.

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They also said having a free service made it easier for people to burn legally.

That was a sentiment echoed in hearings for the proposed legislation earlier this year, when Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, testified the bill would encourage wild blueberry farmers to take advantage of online permits, saving time for both them and their communities.

Scott said Maine residents should not have to pay a fee on top of the taxes they already pay.

As for charging, Hickey said he was not interested in pursuing that.

Gary M. Hickey II  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

‘The state couldn’t compete with our free system,” Hickey said. “So I can’t start charging and compete with the state’s free system.”

From a few dozen communities, Warden’s Report has grown to serve 160 municipalities across the state and has issued more than 60,000 permits this year.

In Pittston, Jordans, who burns fairly often, said instead of having to track someone down to get a paper permit issued, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easier to fill out a couple of screens on the computer to get a permit.

“You fill in the blanks, print it, sign it and keep it on hand for the day,” he said.


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