Online burn permit system should be safe, free, accessible

By Doug Denico


State Forester


Director of the Maine Forest Service

It may be difficult to appreciate the need for the Maine Legislature to address the online burn permit system in these cold and snowy months. Nevertheless, wildfires will reoccur in Maine with the start of spring. In fact, Maine averages 500 wildfires each year and issues over 100,000 fire permits.

The Maine Forest Service (MFS) is statutorily responsible for controlling wildfires in Maine. Forest Rangers take seriously their duty to protect people and property from wildfires. Prevention is the key to wildfire management. The best way to minimize the risk to people and property from outdoor fires is to ensure that outdoor burns are conducted only when conditions are safe.

Until recently, Maine had an effective, singular system in place for burn permit approval. The MFS Director determined the conditions safe for outdoor burning and only allowed issuing of outdoor burn permits when such safe conditions existed. The State’s longstanding practice of requiring permits from the MFS has been a critical component in its successful efforts to safeguard people and property from wildfires, ensuring the consistent administration of the permit application criteria and permit instructions.

Maine residents should have a single, safe, user-friendly and free system to obtain burn permits online. Unfortunately, that system does not exist. The Maine Legislature needs to fix the system currently in place. The situation Maine citizens now face is confusing, discriminatory and may be leading to an increase in the number of fires that get out of hand.

Until 2005, fire permits were issued on paper; however, as online services expanded, the Legislature allowed only the MFS to issue fire permits electronically. Like paper permits, one online form was universally used with the MFS director retaining the override control to respond to changing weather conditions that increased the risk of outdoor fires escaping. The Legislature, looking for a source of revenue, required that online permits issued by the MFS cost $7 each. The MFS was not given the discretion to issue the online permits at no cost.

Recently, several private individuals started leasing software to towns to issue burn permits online for no cost to the purchaser, without MFS or Legislative approval. To make private online burn permit systems legal, the Legislature, early this past summer, passed a bill allowing any private party to sell online burn permits provided their software systems met “all statutory requirements for issuing a burn permit.” This past July, the MFS identified the statutory requirements that a private, online permit system must satisfy and sent these requirements to towns and the private systems.

Yet six months later, the MFS has determined that the requirements imposed by the Legislature — namely, that private software systems must meet “all statutory requirements for issuing burn permits” — are not being followed by private online systems. Therefore, the permits issued by town officials using these private systems are invalid.

The MFS has confirmed with the Office of the Attorney General that permits issued by these private systems are unlawful. In fact, Maine residents are committing a Class E crime each time they conduct a burn with one of these invalid permits.

There is a simple legislative fix that will ensure outdoor burns are conducted responsibly and allow Mainers to keep their $7. The Legislature should repeal the Resolve authorizing the unrestricted proliferation of private online burn systems and repeal the requirement forcing the MFS to charge landowners $7 for each burn permit obtained from the State’s online system. The change is critical as private online systems have issued permits at times not authorized by the MFS that resulted in wildfires.

The consequences posed by escaped outdoor burns are too great to risk the current and expanded use of unlawful, private online systems.

 

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