Dry conditions, human error fueling spate of wildfires across Maine


Wildfires continued to break out across Maine this week fueled by dry conditions combined, in many cases, with human carelessness or outdoor equipment use.

As of Wednesday, the Maine Forest Service had responded to 379 wildfires that burned 257 acres this year.

A tracking chart posted Wednesday by the Maine Forest Service attributed 153 of those fires – about 41 percent – to debris burns that property owners couldn’t keep under control. Another 22 were caused by unattended campfires and 50 were ignited by outdoor maintenance equipment such as logging gear and lawn care machinery. Seven fires were caused by lightning, and the chart said 75 were started by people, but didn’t specify how.

In 2020, the state set a record for wildfires with 1,154 that destroyed 1,047 acres. Most of them can be traced to human error, with 297 attributed to out-of-control debris burns, 193 caused by equipment use and 174 attributed to campfires. A total of 47 wildfires were caused by lightning last year.

It’s still too early to predict whether the number of wildfires reported this year will exceed last year’s total, said Jim Britt, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

But, earlier this year Maine Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton predicted the state could be on pace to set a record. Hamilton said the upward trend was fueled by people who lost control of debris fires on their property. He said last year’s wildfire record broke one set 35 years earlier.

Britt urged people to obey all open burning laws and to obtain a permit before burning brush. He also asked that campers make sure their campfire is fully extinguished before leaving it.

The state’s wildfire danger map, which is updated daily, shows that most of southern Maine, and coastal areas from York to Washington County and inland to Bangor were experiencing moderate fire danger conditions Wednesday. But in northern and western Maine the fire danger remained high.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which relies on various agencies for sourcing data, assembles a map each week that shows sections of the country experiencing drought conditions. The latest map shows that most of southern, coastal and central Maine are experiencing abnormally dry conditions.

Those dry conditions kept firefighters and forest rangers busy this week fighting wildfires that broke out in just about every region of the state.

The Maine Forest Service reported that wildfires burned a shed in Hermon, acreage in Norway and Limington, and ignited woods in Windham and Harrison. On Saturday, a wildfire burned more than 4 acres in Durham. And Tuesday evening, a fire destroyed a building in Albany Township before spreading into an adjacent wooded area.

One wildfire that got out control and threatened the safety of people involved a camp on Graham Lake in Hancock County, north of Ellsworth.

On Monday, a woman staying at the camp called for help after a woods fire surrounded her. The Maine Forest Service was able to bring in a helicopter to dump water on the flames, and the occupants were not harmed, but ranger Jeff Currier issued a warning after the fire, and video footage of the flames shooting up from the woods was posted on YouTube. Witnesses told rangers that they heard explosions the night before the fire and on the day it started.

“I can tell you that if we do an investigation and determine that fireworks started a wildfire, the person responsible can be held liable for the restitution costs for suppressing the fire and that can very easily range into the thousands of dollars very quickly,” Currier told News Center Maine.

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