ELLSWORTH — The weather is warming and as the forest-fire season approaches, local fire officials worry that limits on state contributions to local fire-suppression costs could send their budgets up in smoke.
Tom Parent, forest fire control supervisor for the Maine Forest Service, said in a recent telephone interview that a 1992 law has significantly affected the amount of money the state reimburses municipalities for the cost of extinguishing forest fires.
Before the law went into effect, the state reimbursed communities for half the cost incurred in fighting a forest fire. “If a fire cost the city $50,000 to extinguish, the state would pay $25,000,” said Ellsworth Fire Chief Everett Farnsworth.
Under the present reimbursement formula, Parent said, the state makes no contribution until the cost of fighting forest fires exceeds “one quarter of 1 percent” of the town’s valuation. Costs above that level are completely paid by the state.
Farnsworth said the new formula could seriously affect local taxpayers. In Ellsworth, the cost of extinguishing forest fires for one year would have to exceed $975,000 before the state made a contribution.
“If we had those kinds of costs, the city would be replacing me,” Farnsworth said.
The Ellsworth Fire Department protects a 93-square-mile area, 80 percent of which is wooded. Farnsworth said a 45- to 50-acre forest fire two years ago took two days to extinguish and cost the city about $6,000. If a fire occurred in the fall and moved underground, he said, it could take weeks to extinguish. “That is when you get into big bucks,” he said.
Andrew Mendes, regional ranger for the Maine Forest Service’s southern and western districts, agreed that the law makes it difficult for communities with a high valuation to get any state money for fire control.
“In most cases, it almost eliminates the possibility of collecting fire costs,” he said.
According to information provided by the Forest Service, the cost of fighting forest fires statewide over the past five years amounted to $3,962,682. The data also reveals that those fires caused the loss of $3,416,506 in property.
The state reimbursed towns for the cost of fighting forest fires in only three of the past five years. In 1990, the state paid nearly $52,000. In 1991, the figure rose slightly to nearly $70,000. In 1992, the year the law changed, the state contribution climbed to $91,002. Since then, the state has made no fire-cost reimbursements to towns.
Parent said it was important to note that while cash reimbursements might be diminished, the state Forest Service does send equipment and personnel to help fight local forest fires. On large fires, he said, the Forest Service likely would assume supervision of the fire-fighting effort.
Parent also said that when state costs in such an effort exceed $325,000, it can look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement.
Some communities, Parent said, have purchased forest-fire insurance to help pay local fire-fighting costs. “These policies have been reasonably priced and greatly reduce a town’s forest-fire cost liability,” he explained.
To help reduce the number of forest fires, the Maine Forest Service has asked local fire departments to restrict the number of burn permits they issue.
Each spring, many people visit their fire departments to pick up burn permits. Within the next few weeks, thousands of permits will be issued statewide to burn blueberry lands, fields, slash, brush, grass and pastureland, and some of those burns may go out of control.
Two years ago, the Forest Service placed a statewide fire-permit restriction on burning during April and May. The restriction was mandatory in 1992, and was issued as a strong recommendation after that. Fire departments have been urged to adopt the same restrictions this year. No burning is allowed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during April and May except for a few exceptional circumstances.
The Ellsworth Fire Department this year will issue about 2,600 permits. Nearly 800 of those permits will be issued during April and May.
Farnsworth said Ellsworth issues permits good for only one day, and stipulates that fires may not be started until after 5 p.m. “After 5 p.m., the humidity is a lot higher, the wind has died down, and there is dew in the air. The chance of that fire escaping is a lot less than between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the afternoon,” he said.
Parent said the new restrictions have reduced the number of out-of-control debris-burning fires in the spring by about 40 percent.