Controlled burns on agricultural land can be a useful land management tool when done safely. Credit: Katherine Cassidy / BDN

It may seem counterproductive to deliberately set your land on fire, but before the turn of this century, farmers burning their fields or pastures in Maine was a common sight in the spring.

The practice helped promote new growth and get rid of unwanted brush without using chemicals or machinery.

Now a new generation of homesteaders is showing renewed interest in these prescribed or controlled burns in their land management. According to officials, it can be a useful technique, as long as all regulations and safety procedures are followed.

“Burning is not a bad idea, but like everything on a farm it needs to be approached with caution,” said Joseph Mints, regional forest ranger with the Maine Forest Service. “There are laws and rules around it and you need to know those.”

Mints is unsure of why the practice fell out of favor in the last several decades, but said he is seeing renewed interest on the part of the landowner to return to spring burning.

Controlled, managed burns can help promote new growth of grasses on pasture land, according to Mints. Fire breaks down plant matter and releases nutrients so they are available for new growth in the soil. It also helps slow the growth of brush or trees that can overtake 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 is showing that open burns can be an effective way to control ticks in Maine.

Before starting any controlled burn, Mints said there are steps landowners must follow in Maine.

“There is a lot of preparation and you need to take a mindful approach,” he said. “You need to be safe and very careful.”

The first step, Mints said, is getting an open burning permit from The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The permits are free and available online and, if approved, are good for 24 hours. If you can’t conduct your burn in that time, you need to apply for another one.

You can still get a handwritten burn permit from your local town fire warden or from the nearest Maine forest ranger station or regional office if you live in an unorganized territory.

Permits are only going to be issued in favorable weather conditions and the daily state fire rating. Those conditions include wind speeds of 5 mph or less.

No permits are currently being issued due to ongoing dry conditions and dangers of sparking larger, uncontrolled fires, Mints said.

Regardless of how you get your permit, you must have a printed copy of it on hand when you burn. Fires must never be left unattended and you need to have tools like rakes or shovels and water available to keep the burn under control.

“You also want to consider what regulations and ordinances your municipality may have in place,” Mints said.

Mints also recommends looking at how much acreage you want to burn. It may make more sense to attack it with smaller fires over one section at a time.

Starting the fire can be as simple as striking a match and touching the flame to the materials you want to burn. Mints said it should always be set at the downwind side of the area you are burning. That way it will move slowly over the intended area with the wind helping to check its spread.

Even with the best of plans and under the best of conditions, fires can jump and start to burn out of control. If that happens, Mints said to immediately call the fire department and report it. He said you can call even if you are afraid it might get out of control.

“We would rather you call us and say it has gotten a bit beyond your control and let us get at it,” Mints said.

Mints also said there can be issues of liability on the part of the burn permit holder if an escaped fire damages another person’s property.

Spring is the best time to burn and Mints said that window of opportunity to promote new growth has passed in the southern part of the state.

“Northern Maine is different,” he said. “It is prime time to burn up there.”

Mints said the Maine Forest Service supports controlled burns as a land management practice and as a way to control the spread of ticks.

“We support it as long as people are cautious and do their due diligence,” he said. “Like a lot of things, common sense goes a long way.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.