ADDISON, Maine — The smoke wasn’t much to see — just a thin, black plume wafting over a hillside of trees and blueberry plants.
But with Saturday’s weather and ground conditions creating the potential for “explosive fire growth,” any signs of smoke merited investigation. So Forest Ranger Jasmine Hammond slowly maneuvered her Maine Forest Service pickup along the rocky and rutted dirt road in Addison until her hunch was confirmed.
A crew of workers were burning blueberry barrens — a common enough practice in this part of Washington County, but nonetheless a prohibited one on Saturday due to extreme wildfire risks.
All of Down East Maine as well as parts of Penobscot, Piscataquis and Aroostook counties remained under “red flag warnings” on Saturday because of the dangerous combination of high winds, low humidity and ample dry fuel for fires. The fire danger has diminished due to Sunday’s rains, although fire officials say it only takes a few days of dry weather to create dangerous conditions.
As one of roughly 55 rangers in a state with 17 million acres of forest, Hammond is often on the front line when it comes to both fighting wildfires and working to deter them.
In the Addison case, the crew had started burning well before the “red flag warning” was issued on Saturday, stopped when Hammond arrived and stayed around to make sure all fires were out. They were also well prepared in terms of manpower and equipment, so no summonses were issued.
“Down the road, I may need his help,” Hammond said. “He may have equipment that I need” to fight a future fire.
Of course, not all fire cases are so simple or involve friendly parties. Of the 14 fires Hammond’s office has handled in Washington and Hancock counties recently, five are suspected arsons.
One of those occurred Friday night in nearby Columbia Falls when someone used a match to start a blaze in a wooded grove alongside a dirt road that winds between blueberry barrens and wreath-making tree plantations. Luckily, much less than an acre burned because the area was somewhat sheltered from the gusting winds and the fire was spotted quickly, Hammond said. But the potential for serious damage was there.
“Look at all of the dead [material] on the ground, it could have been very bad,” Hammond said as she cruised by the blackened area. “So we try to be proactive … and educate people. And that is why we have the red flag warnings, so people take it seriously and know how dangerous it is.”
Lt. Jeff Currier with the Maine Forest Service said April through May is always a busy time for fires before grass and trees “green up.” This year’s spring fire season is simply starting earlier than normal due to the warm weather and lack of snow cover in many areas.
Despite the increased risk, the forest service does not discourage people from burning brush or grass except during red flag warnings or on days with high fire risk. Controlled burns are a kind of tradition for many in Maine, so the service merely recommends that people be aware of the conditions, get the proper permits and follow the advice of local fire officials, Currier said.
Dealing with fires is arguably the highest-profile responsibility of forest rangers in Maine. But any ranger will tell you that it is only one part of a job.
“Fire is our No. 1 priority: it always has been and always will be,” Currier said. “But it is not all we do.”
Forest rangers’ other responsibilities include inspecting timber harvesting operations, investigating theft of natural resources or equipment vandalism, assisting with search and rescue missions, enforcing ATV and snowmobile laws, fighting the spread of invasive species and maintaining relationships with private landowners.
Hammond spent part of Saturday focusing on the latter as she responded to two complaints of littering, a major problem on Maine’s woods roads. A few trash bags or tires left in a clearing quickly can turn into a major dump site for household waste, appliances, mattresses and other garbage.
In one of the more unpleasant parts of her job, Hammond pulled on rubber gloves and cut open several trash bags to look for mail or other items that could help lead back to whoever dumped more than a dozen bags on a road. She quickly found an address and, within an hour, had spoken to a man who acknowledged ditching the bags. He received a summons and agreed to clean up the site that afternoon.
The agency also sponsors “landowner appreciation” days when groups clean up dump sites as a way to thank property owners who allow the public to use their land and roads.
“The reason it is so important to us is landowners are going to put gates up, and some already have,” Hammond said. “Those gates are a fire hazard to us because we need to have access.”