A fire that drew three fire departments and burned about 1.5 acres of woods last week along Route 196 was started by two 12-year-old Topsham boys playing with a lighter, officials say.
Topsham firefighters went to the woods fire with Brunswick and Lisbon departments at 2:55 p.m. Sunday and had the fire under control within about 30 minutes. The fire was on the Harry C. Crooker and Sons pit property along Route 196.
Topsham fire Capt. Greg Payson said members of the Topsham Fire Department investigated the fire. Their findings were confirmed by the Maine Forest Service.
The boys will be enrolled in Topsham Fire Department’s juvenile fire setting program, Payson said, and Topsham Police Department is determining if any charges will be levied.
Topsham Police Lt. Fred Dunn said the boys ran home after the fire got out of control; alerted a parent, who called 911; and admitted to starting the fire.
The incident underscored warnings of Class 3 fire danger — on a scale of 1 to 5 — from state fire officials as dry weather persists and vegetation has yet to fully bloom.
Maine Forest Service fire prevention specialist Kent Nelson said the forest service makes recommendations and issues predicted wildfire danger classes in the morning, but there is some flexibility as to whether town fire wardens and fire chiefs can issue burn permits.
Permit or not, a person who starts a fire is legally responsible for controlling it.
Payson said the Topsham Fire Department does not issue burning permits on Class 3, 4 or 5 days, when fire danger is “high,” “very high” or “extreme,” respectively.
The same is the case for Brunswick Fire Department, according to Fire Chief Ken Brillant, who said the daily Maine Forest Service analysis gives him valuable humidity, wind and temperature data.
When fire officials talk about fire danger, “you talk about cleanup,” Brillant said.
People with a lot of dense woods around their homes want to clean up dead leaves, pine needles and “stuff that’s dead,” Brillant said. But this is the material that’s going to burn “and burn rapidly, especially in these dry conditions.”
Nelson said it’s typical to have a lot of fire activity in the spring.
“You’ve had your dead grasses and what we call our fine fuels, compressed underneath snow for several months, and then the snow melts and you get the warmer temperatures and wind and the relative low humidity that dries things out.
“If you get an ignition source, you have a quick-moving flashy fire,” he said. “That’s why it’s important that we can get to these fires as soon as we can.”
The forest service asks that people be very careful with any outside fires, Nelson said.
There have been some unusual fire starts, such as a lawnmower blade hitting a rock and sending a spark into dead grass. Most are caused by people who have a brush fire and think they put it out, but hot coals remain and afternoon winds reignite it.
“We are asking people to hold off on burning until we get a couple inches of rain, because we haven’t had a significant rainfall for two weeks, and that’s what’s unusual about this year,” Nelson said. “If they do any burning, first of all they have to have a burn permit, and those are actually hard to get right now.”
Brillant wants people to be careful with outdoor fires, whether they’re doing a barbecue or dumping ashes.
People are still burning wood in homes this time of year. But even though they may throw the ashes out at night when it is cool and the ground moist, the ashes remain hot, and the sun and a little wind quickly dries up any moisture.
If you have to dump ashes, he said, spread them out thin in a dirt area so they cool faster, or wait for a rainy day.
Even when people are burning with a permit, outdoor fires can easily get out of control and cause a lot of destruction, Brillant said.
As the fire danger class rises and conditions worsen, firefighters become hypervigilant.
“We do still have a lot of people who don’t realize you need to have a permit to burn brush,” Brillant said. “If a citizen wants to do some burning, whether it’s a pile of brush or a campfire burn, they should always contact their local fire department to see if they need a permit and if the conditions are good or not.”
And if you do any permitted burning, Nelson added, “make sure the fire is out completely and check repeatedly.”
So far in 2013, Nelson said the state has had more than 200 wildfires that burned more than 400 acres, “and that number is increasing as we speak.”
The number of fires is not unusual compared with a 10-year average, though it comes later in the year than most.
However, the acreage affected by fires this year is higher than normal, Nelson said.
Visit the Maine Forest Service website at www.maine.gov/doc/mfs/ to view daily wildfire danger predictions, which you can also sign up to receive on a daily basis by email or text message.
Homeowners can also read about and watch a 20-minute video at that website about how to reduce the risk of wildfire near their homes.