2016-08-09 / Front Page

Drought conditions raise fire risk to high

Officials on alert as dry weather continues to blanket area
By TAMMY WELLS
Senior Staff Writer


Dry weather is prompting some fire departments, such as Goodwin’s Mills Fire and Rescue, to limit burn permits. 
TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune Dry weather is prompting some fire departments, such as Goodwin’s Mills Fire and Rescue, to limit burn permits. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune LYMAN — Fire chiefs around York County are hoping for rain - a good, steady rain to dampen the fire danger.

Drought conditions have increased the likelihood of brush and forest fires, raising the fire danger index to high Monday from the New Hampshire border to Bangor and just east of Camden on the Maine coast.

Goodwin’s Mills Deputy Fire Chief Chad Johnston said Monday there hasn’t been a dry spell that has lasted this long for quite some time.

“Its an uneasy feeling,” said Johnston.

The central part of York County over to the coast remains in a severe drought, according to meteorologist Nikki Becker of the National Weather Service in Gray. Further inland, she said, the drought is moderate to “abnormally dry.”

Fire officials are keeping a sharp eye on the fire danger index and local weather conditions as they contemplate daily whether conditions are favorable enough to issue burn permits.


The Middle Branch of the Mousam River in north Alfred usually has more water flowing this time of year, but drought conditions are taking a toll. 
TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune The Middle Branch of the Mousam River in north Alfred usually has more water flowing this time of year, but drought conditions are taking a toll. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune And while emergency management officials say they’ve not yet heard reports from homeowners with private wells that their wells are drying up, if the dry spell continues, it seems likely some will have trouble, said York County Emergency Management Agency Director Art Cleaves.

The dry conditions prompted the Maine Drought Task Force to meet last week for the first time in 14 years. Taking the state as a whole, the task force reported moderate drought conditions, said Cleaves.

Acting Fire Chief Chris Young in Hollis said a brush fire there burned about 11/2 acres Sunday afternoon when a permitted burn got out of control.

Young said the department issues burn permits based partially on the Maine Forest Service predicted fire danger index and current local conditions, mostly related to wind.

When the permit was issued Sunday morning, there was no wind, and it wasn’t forecast. But the wind sprung up in the afternoon, and the brush pile was bigger than the homeowner was prepared to control, said Young. A tanker relay was required to extinguish the blaze because there was no water source in the area.

Young pointed out that some waterways are low, and the sprawling town has one hydrant out of service because of low water.

“If (the dry conditions) continue, it could definitely become a bigger problem,” Young said. “We’re keeping an eye on it, but it is not at the point I’d consider critical. ”

Over in Acton, Fire Chief Steve Johnson said his department isn’t issuing any burn permits, and hasn’t since Friday. The temporary ban will continue until there’s rain.

That could happen this weekend, but what’s currently in the forecast is the potential for hit-or-miss thundershowers, said Becker.

“Widespread rain? No,” she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey found a significant drop in the measure of water in wells they monitor, said Cleaves.

Cleaves said the last time conditions were similar was in 2000-01, when Sebago Lake, the water source for Portland, was 20 feet below normal. Currently, it is a foot below normal, he said.

If conditions continue to deteriorate, families who rely on wells will begin to feel the effect of the dry spell. Municipal water districts haven’t been affected.

“Small, shallow dug wells are the first to get hit, then drilled wells,” said Cleaves.

Randy Marquis, who owns Sanford Well and Pump, subcontracts out his well-drilling work, but said he’s had “a few” calls from folks who are experiencing water problems.

On Monday afternoon, the Maine Forest Service was battling three wildfires in Piscataquis County in northern Maine, according to a report in the Bangor Daily News.

The lack of snow cover this past winter combined with the lack of rain this summer has dried things out quite a bit, said Maine Forest Service Ranger Matt Gomes.

“The only rain we’ve had has been associated with thunderstorms, and its not the type of rain we need. It just runs off,” he said.

Gomes said some forest fires are sparked by those who don’t extinguish campfires; others by lightning strikes. The forest service contracts with the Civil Air Patrol to fly detection flights.

Gomes said people who want to burn brush must have a permit to do so, but some choose to ignore the law. Campfires are not a problem unless they’re built on someone else’s property – which is against the law – or if they’re not extinguished.

“They need to put water on it and stir it and drown it,” Gomes said. “We’ve had a number of campfires come back and reignite. They will burn underground and pop up days later.

“...People need to be aware of where they’re having their fire and making sure it is completely out. Stick your hand in the ashes for two to three minutes – if you can’t do that, the fire is not out.”

Back at Goodwin’s Mills Fire and Rescue, Johnston said the agency is not issuing burn permits until after 5 p.m., and only on days when the fire danger index is at 1 or 2 – which is low or moderate conditions.

And, he pointed out, while homeowners’ lawns may be brown and crisp, where there are trees overhead, the ground is green. And that helps.

“We’ve not had any major fires, but the education process is way better than it would have been 20 years ago, and people are aware of it,” Johnston said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and see rain.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or twells@journaltribune.com.

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