It may seem counterproductive to deliberately set fire to your land, but before the turn of this century, farmers burning their fields or pastures in Maine were commonplace in the spring.
The practice has helped promote new growth and get rid of unwanted brush without using chemicals or machinery.
Today, a new generation of settlers is showing a renewed interest in these prescribed or controlled burns in the management of their lands. According to officials, this can be a useful technique, as long as all safety regulations and procedures are followed.
“Burning isn’t a bad idea, but like anything on a farm, it should be approached with caution,” said Maine Forest Service regional ranger Joseph Mints. “There are laws and rules about this and you need to know them.”
Mints isn’t sure why the practice has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but said he’s seen renewed landowner interest in returning to spring burning.
According to Mints, controlled and managed burns can help encourage new grass growth on pastures. The fire breaks down the plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available for new growth in the soil. It also helps slow the growth of brush or trees that may overgrow open fields and crowd out other plant species.
Recently, a farmer in Maine set her fields on fire to rid her property of ticks. According to Mints, research shows that open burns can be an effective way to control ticks in Maine.
Before beginning any controlled burn, Mints said there are steps landowners must follow in Maine.
“There’s a lot of preparation and you have to take a conscious approach,” he said. “You have to be safe and very careful.”
The first step, Mints said, is to get a open burning permit of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Permits are free and available online and, if approved, are valid for 24 hours. If you cannot complete your burn within this time, you must request another one.
You can always get a handwritten burn permit from your local city fire ranger or the nearest Maine ranger station or regional office if you live in unorganized territory.
Permits will only be issued under favorable weather conditions and the state’s daily fire rating. These conditions include wind speeds of 5 mph or less.
No permits are currently being issued due to persistent dry conditions and the risk of starting larger, out-of-control fires, Mints said.
Regardless of how you obtain your permit, you should have a printed copy on hand when you burn. Fires should never be left unattended and you should have tools such as rakes or shovels and water to control the burn.
“You also want to consider any regulations and ordinances your municipality may have in place,” Mints said.
Mints also recommends looking at the area you want to burn. It may make more sense to attack it with smaller fires on one section at a time.
Starting a fire can be as simple as striking a match and touching the flame to the materials you wish to burn. Mints said it should always be placed on the downwind side of the area you are burning. This way it will move slowly over the intended area, with the wind helping to control its spread.
Even with the best plans and in the best conditions, fires can flare up and get out of hand. If this happens, Mints said to call the fire department immediately and report it. He said you can call even if you are afraid it will get out of control.
“We’d rather you call us and say this got a little out of your control and let us make it happen,” Mints said.
Mints also said there may be liability issues on the part of the burn permit holder if a wildfire damages someone else’s property.
Spring is the best time to burn, and Mints said the window of opportunity to promote new growth has passed in the southern part of the state.
“Northern Maine is different,” he said. “It’s time to burn over there.”
Mints said the Maine Forest Service supports prescribed burns as a land management practice and as a way to control the spread of ticks.
“We support it as long as people are careful and do their due diligence,” he said. “Like many things, common sense goes a long way.”