When Maine Burned: Remembering 50 Years Ago

This is the year that "downeasterners" (as residents of Maine are referred to) are commemorating the great forest and structural wildland interzone fires of October 1947. A lengthy drought had a stranglehold on New England. Particularly hard hit were...


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This is the year that "downeasterners" (as residents of Maine are referred to) are commemorating the great forest and structural wildland interzone fires of October 1947.

A lengthy drought had a stranglehold on New England. Particularly hard hit were the vast forests of pine, spruce and deciduous leaf trees that covered over 90% of Maine's land mass. Maine was to experience its worst forest fire disaster in its history. Numerous fires, which fed on woods, fields and even humus-type soil that had become bone dry due to the prolonged drought, escaped from weary firefighters and consumed over 200,000 acres.

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Photo courtesy of Ted Dyer/collection of The Brick Store Museum
Firefighters gather on Pool Road in Biddeford to try to stop advancing flames.

Nine towns were leveled, many others were severely damaged and 16 people died in the fires. Property losses were set at a 1947 figure of $30 million. A comparison analysis prepared by the state of Maine based on current property values for 1996 would change the 1947 loss figure to over $2.4 billion.

As large and destructive as these fires were, the largest forest fire was the so-called Miramichi Fire of Oct. 7, 1825, which burned an amazing 832,000 acres of forest. This is according to the Maine Forest Commissioner's Report of 1947.

Many reports and articles have been written about the October 1947 fires of Maine. The most impressive accounts have been written by Joyce Butler of Kennebunk, ME, in her book, Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, published by Downeast Books ($14.95 per copy). This is a fascinating and fact-filled chronicle that puts the reader almost "on-scene," some 50 years earlier, giving graphic accounts of the fires' behavior and the struggles of firefighters and residents as they faced the firestorms. I highly recommend reading this historical accounting of one of the most destructive fires of modern times. An updated 50th anniversary edition of Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned has just been published. Our thanks to Mrs. Butler for providing her new "Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition":

John Smith came out of the Army in 1946, and went home to Limington. He was twenty-one, and ready to get on with his life. He got a job, and set about courting his wife-to-be, Josephine Ham of Hollis. During the dry summer months of 1947 he volunteered to fight a forest fire in Limington's Blake's Mill neighborhood. He remembers how the fire consumed two feet of duff and burned deep into the ground so that it had to be dug out. In October when the worst forest fires in Maine's history erupted in southern Maine, John Smith was on the front lines.

Today, a veteran volunteer fire fighter, he is amazed when he looks back to 1947, remembering the scope of the fires and the firefighters' confusion, hard work, and inadequate equipment. Smith fought the fires in the Waterboros. He remembers how someone - often no one they knew, but someone who was assuming "command " would come to a crew of men on a fire line and say, " 'We've got to get out of here.' They'd load you into somebody's truck, and you'd go somewhere else." Smith was in North Waterboro when the board yard at Johnson's Mill went up in flames. "It was just like an explosion." Pieces of pine boards, "all afire, flew into the air." Smith was there to see the fire that caused so much damage in the Waterboros sweep onto the Saco River, "rolling across the top of the trees. You figured everything was going to burn. That fire they claimed it traveled eight to ten miles in twenty minutes."

Smith remembers how at night, when the wind died down and the smoke settled to the ground so that you couldn't see or breathe, firefighting crews stopped their work. The fire was not moving, it seemed less threatening; it was, they thought, a good chance to take a rest, get a meal, go home to see how the family was. That was a mistake, a missed opportunity. In 1953 when serious forest fires burned in York County firefighters knew that nightfall was the time to really dig in and do some meaningful firefighting. They had learned one of the lessons of 1947.

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Photo courtesy of Ted Dyer/collection of The Brick Store Museum
Flames jump Route 1 in North Kennebunkport.
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