Woods fire in Northport, Red Flag warnings prompt calls for caution or to just not burn

Posted:  Tuesday, May 5, 2015 - 5:15pm
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This weekend's weather forecast is calling for some rain, but with only a total of about .6 inches predicted to fall, it's likely that the Maine Forest Service's Red Flag Warning for open burning of brush, wood debris and grass/agricultural fields will continue statewide through Sunday.

Just after midnight on Monday, Northport, Lincolnville and Belfast firefighters were called out for a reported woods fire at 144 Atlantic Highway (Route 1) in Northport.

According to Northport firefighter Mike Alley, who most recently served as the town's fire chief before stepping down to devote more time to his electrical business, the fire occurred at Pussy's Port O' Call, a feline resort and boarding business.

"I was about half way to the scene and heard the fire was approaching the garage, and when we got there, it had gotten into the garage, up the siding and in to soffit and into the roof on the inside," said Alley. Leaves on the ground around the garage were also burning.

He said Northport firefighters were able to knock the fire down in the first couple of minutes, saving two antique vehicles stored inside.

Belfast Fire Department was turned around before they arrived on scene, but Alley said they kept a Lincolnville pumper on scene to assist with more water.

"The building was damaged on the side, but not structurally," said Alley.

When asked about the cause, he said it may have been an earlier campfire that reignited in the wind, but that it's going to be investigated officially by Maine Forestry.

"That's for them to decide," said Alley. "They were called and will be down today to look into it for us."

Alley said that no burn permits are being issued while the state Forest Service has a red flag warning in place.

"Until they lift the red flag, no permits," said Alley.

National Fire Danger Rating System Description

1-Low. Fuels do not ignite readily from small firebrands, although a more intense *-heat-* source, such as lightning, may start many fires in duff or punky wood. Fires in open cured grassland may burn freely a few hours after rain, but woods fires spread slowly by creeping or smoldering, and burn in irregular fingers. There is little danger of spotting.
The color code for Low is green

2-Moderate. Fires can start from most accidental causes, but with the exception of lightning fires in some areas, the number of starts is generally low. Fires in open-cured grassland will burn briskly and spread rapidly on windy days. Woods fires spread slowly to moderately fast. The average fire is of moderate intensity, although heavy concentrations of fuel, especially draped fuel, may burn hot. Short-distance spotting may occur, but is not persistent. Fires are not likely to become serious, and control is relatively easy.
The color code for Moderate is blue.

3-High. All fine dead fuels ignite readily and fires start easily from most causes. Unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape. Fires spread rapidly and short-distance spotting is common. High-intensity burning may develop on slopes, in concentrations of fine fuel. Fires may become serious and their control difficult, unless they are hit hard and fast while small.
The color code for High is yellow.

4-Very High. Fires start easily from all causes, and immediately after ignition, spread rapidly and increase quickly in intensity. Spot fires are a constant danger. Fires burning in light fuels may quickly develop high-intensity characteristics; such as, long-distance spotting and fire whirlwinds, when they burn into heavier fuels. Direct attack at the head of such fires is rarely possible after they have been burning more than a few minutes.
The color code for Very High is orange.

5-Extreme. Fires under extreme conditions start quickly, spread furiously, and burn intensely. All fires are potentially serious. Development into high-intensity burning will usually be faster and occur from smaller fires than in the very high danger class (item 4). Direct attack is rarely possible, and may be dangerous, except immediately after ignition. Fires that develop headway in heavy slash or in conifer stands may be unmanageable while the extreme burning condition lasts. Under these conditions, the only effective and safe control action is on the flanks until the weather changes or the fuel supply lessens.
The color code for Extreme is red.

The Forest Service requires that municipalities adhere to the National Fire Danger Rating System. On a daily basis, spring to fall, each town is issued the day's rating class.

In order of lowest to highest danger, 1 is low and green; 2 is moderate and blue; 3 is high and yellow; 4 is very high and orange; and 5 is extreme and red.

During class 5 days, the Rating System description follows: "Fires under extreme conditions start quickly, spread furiously, and burn intensely. All fires are potentially serious. Development into high-intensity burning will usually be faster and occur from smaller fires than in the very high danger class (item 4). Direct attack is rarely possible, and may be dangerous, except immediately after ignition. Fires that develop headway in heavy slash or in conifer stands may be unmanageable while the extreme burning condition lasts. Under these conditions, the only effective and safe control action is on the flanks until the weather changes or the fuel supply lessens."

Doing a quick survey Tuesday afternoon, a Red Flag day also carrying a class 4 designation, Lincolnville Fire Chief Ben Hazen said the only people in his town that will be given burn permits right now are those who own blueberry barrens.

"This is actually the perfect time for them to burn, and they are professional and we can trust them to be prepared," said Hazen. "Other than that, we need to wait for some rain before anyone can be burning, even in burn barrels."

The same holds true for Rockport, where Fire Chief Jason Peasley said based on a situation he ran into today, when a blueberry barren owner came in seeking a permit to burn today, he learned that state law does indeed give him discretion to deny a town burn permit on class 3, 4 and 5 days.

That's in part, because at the town level on a given day, there may be information that there are not enough firefighters available should a permitted burn get out of control, or firefighting equipment is temporarily unavailable for one reason or another.

"The key is to plan and keep an eye on the weather if you are planning to hire people and equipment for a large burn project," said Peasley. "Anybody can get a permit on a class 1 or 2 day, a class 3 day is at the chief's discretion, and a class 4 day is at the chief's discretion and only for extreme exceptions."

In the case of today's blueberry barren burn request, Peasley said he and the Forest Service eventually relented because the land owner had hired more than a dozen people to help out and had two 500-gallon water holding tanks on site to keep the fire under control. They felt assured that the danger brought on by weather and conditions out of their control would be mitigated by the controls put in place by the landowner.

Peasley said it's also his desire for the public to understand that obtaining a burn permit from a town is a privilege, not a right. He said there are guidelines that ttown clerks and fire department personnel have to follow to issue a permit, and that they have no role in interpreting the law or making decisions.

In Camden, as long as a resident has requisite safety materials on site, adheres to the time limits and agrees to remain on site during the burn and properly extinguish the fire, burn permits can be issued on class 1 and 2 days.

"But burn permits are issued on class 1 and 2 days only, that's it," said Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley.

Related links:

Maine Forest Service: Daily Wildfire Danger Report

Reach Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards at hollyedwards@penbaypilot.com and 706-6655