An online system for issuing fire permits (also called burn permits), started by two volunteer firefighters in West Gardiner, has been told by the state to shut down.
The site is called “Wardensreport.com,” and was started by the current and former fire chiefs of the West Gardiner Fire Department. They say the site was started to make it easy for people to get burn permits on line for free, instead of having to pay $7 for an online permit from the Maine Forest Service. Paper permits are still available free from local departments.
The creators of the site, former town fire chief Chris McLoughlin and current West Gardiner Chief Gary Hickey, say they received verbal approval from the Forest Service four years ago, when the site was created. The goal, they told NEWS CENTER, was to provide burn permits at no charge. Towns pay $75 per year to subscribe to the service, and individual users from those towns and cities get their permits at no charge.
“All we did was take this paper permit and put it in a website,” said McLoughlin.”To make it easier for the public and we really wanted to keep it free for the public, because it should be free.”
They say the Warden's Report had sixty towns and cities subscribing to it, and were “on track to issue 20,000 permits this year.” But several days ago, the Maine Forest service sent letters to the subscribing towns saying the system was illegal.
“Recently we’ve had the Attorney General’s office review the statute, and found out we don’t have the authority to allow private systems to issue burn permits,” said Kent Nelson, a forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service who oversees the state’s online burn permit system.
Nelson said the MFS had given verbal approval for the Warden's Report system several years ago, but had recently raised a question with the Attorney General about it. He said they are concerned about safety and also about reducing confusion.
“Maine Forest Service needs to be the authority to handle the online burn permit system,” he said.
The founders of Warden Report said the system had been working well for its users.
“Five years it’s been working, no problem, no issues,” said Gary Hickey. “We’ve had no issues, the Forest Service likes it, fire chiefs like it, the public likes it, everybody likes it.”
The two firefighters suggested the state may be unhappy about losing revenue from its own online service, but Nelson said money is not the issue. He said that $2 of the $7 permit fee is sent to local fire departments, and the rest covers the cost of operating the service.
The Forest Service says the private systems will need to ask for a law change from the Legislature if they want to resume operations. In the meantime, they say the state’s online service continues to provide burn permits, while people can still get permits for free from local fire departments.