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 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.

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.

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

Tom Parent, State Supervisor For Forest Fire Control with the Maine Forest Service, points out that many important lessons were learned from 1947. Fire fighters are now trained to national standards, equipment is standardized, detection has been modernized (aircraft have replaced spotting towers), and clear lines of command to be followed during fire emergencies have been established. The Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact, which was organized as a result of Maine's forest fire disaster and became law in 1949, began with a membership of five New England states and New York. It now includes the six New England states and New York, three Canadian provinces, and the U. S. Forestry Service. The Compact is part of a national mobilization system. The Maine Forest Service understands the threat of wildfire, and believes it is prepared to meet that threat.

It is the general public that needs to be made aware of the danger of forest fires. In the fifty years since Maine's disaster better detection systems and improved training and equipment have reduced the reach of Maine's forest fires. In the 1960's single fires burned tens of thousands of acres. In the 1970's their scope was in the 4,000-acre range, Since the 1980's fires have been contained to 1,000 acres or less. This record has given Maine people a complacency they shouldn't have. Although 94% of fires occurring in Maine in any given year are reported by the public, many do not understand the ferocity of wildfire running loose, burning everything in its path, and the difficulty of stopping it, even with good equipment. Many people who live in Maine today were not here in 1947 to hear the freight-train-roar of a forest fire, to see flames rolling across the tops of trees like waves breaking on the sand, traveling ten miles in twenty minutes.

Educating the public to the destructive potential of forest fires is a high priority for the Maine Forest Service's Department of Conservation. In 1987, the fortieth anniversary of the fires, the Forest Service erected billboard-style signs in the seventeen towns that suffered the most severe damage. The maps and text on those signs paint a grim picture of what was lost, and, hopefully, alert those who stop to read them to the need to be vigilant so it won't happen again. Forest Service officials tell me that Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned is also an important tool for getting their fire prevention message out to the public. Educators on all grade levels tell me it is a perennial favorite for book reports. That means a new generation is learning about the dangers of wildfire. I am pleased that the book is useful in such an important way.

Photo courtesy of Ted Dyer/collection of The Brick Store Museum
A pumper drafts water from a pond at Clark's Mills.

This new edition of Wildfire Loose gives me an opportunity to thank those who have contacted me since 1979 to correct mistakes made in the first edition and to provide new information about Maine's disastrous trial by fire. In 1980 I learned that Jane Obermeyer of Kennebunk was the sister of Helen Cormier, the teenage girl who lost her life during Bar Harbor's ordeal. Jane shared with me her knowledge of that sad day in 1947. In 1981 Cyrus Hamlin, also of Kennebunk, provided me with a detailed account of his experiences on Mount Desert Island in 1947. Marjorie Kenney Lewis of Springvale contacted me in 1987 to tell me about a group of Sanford firefighters who passed their firefighting time in the woods singing in harmony. Their singing gave them such pleasure and sounded so well rising over those smoke-shrouded woods and fields that they continued singing together after the fires, and formed a choir called "The Merrymen." Letitia M. Church of Birch Harbor wrote to me in 1988 about the ordeal of her grandmother, Maud Cote, at Goose Rocks Beach. Mrs. Cote was housekeeper for Lawrence Ireland, and "during that awful day when his house burned, stood in the water with her sister, Theresa Foster, who was in her 80's and nearly blind, and watched Mr. Ireland's house go up in flames with a new vehicle in the garage because neither of the ladies could drive." In 1989 A. H. Drummond, Jr., set me straight on the automobile accident that claimed the lives of two college classmates and injured him and another. Leland H. Gile, Jr., wrote from Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1990 to describe the fire at Ross Corner in Waterboro. In 1991 Deborah Parks sent me photographs of Brownfield buildings that "went" were burned when that small town was swept by the Fryeburg fire. To these and others who contacted me, my thanks.

It would be a mistake to think that what happened in Maine in 1947 pales beside the western wildfires we have seen in recent years on television news programs. Maine's disaster still ranks at the top of the national scale. While vast areas of forest and valuable real estate have been lost in western states, it is important to remember that within the 200,000 acres that burned in Maine were seventeen communities, nine of which were leveled.

Could it happen again? Even those who answer it is "unlikely" would agree with Lloyd Davis, who told me in 1977, "You take any time that Nature goes on a rampage ... a human being is almost a useless thing." How often Mother Nature has shown us that "what's past is prologue."

The following are excerpts from the official report from Austin H. Wilkins, deputy forest commissioner, Maine Forest Commission:

Photo courtesy Collection of The Brick Store Museum
A view of the flames in York County.

In October 1947, Maine experienced its worst forest fire disaster in its history. This devastation and human privation resulted from fires which were fanned by strong winds (up to 70 mph) during extremely dry conditions. The unprecedented severity of the fires goes beyond description except for those who witnessed and fought to bring them under control.

205,678 acres of forests, fields, and pastures were burned. This is a little over 1% of the total acres of forest land in Maine. Graphically, a strip of land 286 miles long by 11/8 miles wide burned.

The weather for the entire season was unusual, going from one extreme to the other. Snowfall was normal, but there was very little frost in the ground. In early March we had abnormally warm weather with the temperatures in the 80s. However, April, May and June were cold and wet. Starting in mid-July, a complete reversal of weather and ground conditions took place and continued for four months. This marked the beginning of a prolonged drought with 108 days without any appreciable rains.

The dryness of the soil began to reflect in the foliage of the hardwoods. Their leaves dried out prematurely and could be pulverized in the hand. In many hardwood trees the fires actually crowned through them. Firefighters were often hampered in their efforts as the leaves would fall quickly on the hot ground, ignite and cause fires to jump across cut fire lines. The nights were hot with hardly any moisture or dew forming.

The week of Oct. 20 will be long remembered. The state was powder dry and many scattered fires were burning deep in the ground. Records show that there were 204 separate forest fires burning in October. On Oct. 21, strong winds began to blow culminating in an all-day gale on Oct. 23. What happened on that day and subsequent days is a nightmare to all who had any connection with the fires.

The largest forest fire occurred in York County, in southern Maine, and burned 131,000 acres. Some idea of the size of this fire can be shown by the fact that it burned in 15 towns and had a fire line perimeter of 150 miles around. There were three separate fires involved. These fires were at widely separated points. On the day of the big wind of Oct. 23, these three fires were whipped into a fury never experienced by native firefighters in Maine. The North Kennebunkport fire, fanned by the wind, carried a solid wall of fire clear to the Atlantic Ocean, wiping out valuable summer beach homes and properties.

Photo courtesy Collection of The Brick Store Museum
Property losses were put at a 1947 figure of $30 million; that would top $2.4 billion today.

It was an awesome sight to see the solid walls of roaring fire sweeping over mountains and across level areas, consuming everything in their path. At times flame heights were 100 to 300 feet. For days, the smoke hung so thick and heavy over the area that it was difficult to determine how near or far the fires were. The sun did not penetrate through the thick pall of smoke for over 10 days.

The sound of the onrushing fires on fronts of several miles was described as a continuous roar. Communications were severed, adding to problems of suppression and evacuation. Heroism was everywhere; firefighters making last-ditch stands; families just escaping before flames enveloped their homes. Appreciating the lack of water, fleets of big and small tanker trucks were bumper-to-bumper on roadways.

The intensity of the fires was interesting. Fanned by gale force winds, some fires crowned through stands of pine and yet did not drop down to develop a surface fire. In other instances, crown fires traveled hundreds of feet ahead of surface fires. In still other areas, the fire blew so hard that only an inch of humus was burned. It was mystifying to see areas where the fire virtually blew itself out. A heavily wooded island a half mile out to sea burned like a flaming torch.

The burning of Newfield was so tragic since it was so completely consumed. The Goose Rocks and Cape porpoise District in Kennebunkport lost 200 dwellings.

The loss of Brownfield and East Brownfield was tragic. Roads were crowded with people, livestock, cars and (animal) teams all fleeing before the fires. Pilots engaged in control efforts could see very little because of the dense rolling clouds of black smoke.

"The Dunkerque of Bar Harbor," as it was called, actually began with a fire on Mt. Desert Island that spread into Bar Harbor and burned over 17,000 acres. The winds of Oct. 21 and 23 blew the fire into the town. Because of the rugged terrain of the island and Bar Harbor, the fire was very difficult to fight. The dense growth of spruce and pine provided sufficient fuels for the fire to travel rapidly, crown heavily and fan out into many fingers of fire.

Photo courtesy Collection of The Brick Store Museum
A couple watches flames consume what's left of their home in Goose Rocks Beach.

There were many dramatic scenes. At one time, the main avenue of escape from the island was cut off. Fleeing residents that were trapped on the town's wharf were rescued by the Coast Guard, Navy and a flotilla of private boats. (It was reported that 4,000 people were rescued.) The "Dunkerque" scene was made all the more dramatic when the telephone exchange was evacuated and all power was cut off (by the fire). Only a sudden shift in the wind saved the main business section of Bar Harbor from destruction. However, many of the palatial homes and estates were quickly consumed by the fire (end of excerpts from Wilkins' report).

The Red Cross estimated that 3,500 people were displaced and 2,500 were left homeless. In 35 communities, 851 homes were completely destroyed, 397 summer homes lost and vast uncounted barns, garages and other structures were damaged or destroyed. It was reported that 20,000 firefighters, military personnel and civilians were fighting the fires.

On Oct. 29, some rain fell and the winds had calmed down. The worst was over. It was not until Nov. 8 that heavy rains fell, ending the drought and helping to extinguish the great fires of October 1947.

When asked whether the fires of 1947 could happen again, Parent, of the Maine Forest Fire Control Division stated, "In spite of what we would all like to believe, the answer is unfortunately 'yes.' Although there have been major improvements in training, fire prevention, communications and mutual aid agreements, etc, the right combinations of fuel, weather and topography could create another disaster as in 1947. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the country with over 90% of the land base forested. The continuity of fuel could allow a forest fire to burn through almost all communities from one end of the state to the other.

"Are the Maine fire services ready today should fires occur? The answer to this is to prevent major fires from happening in the first place. There is no organization that can deal with a worst case scenario by itself as a routine course of business. It is absolutely critical that all the fire services work together to control a disastrous fire. In short, a major interzone fire would require that all fire services: local, state, federal and provincial, work together so that an effective response can be conducted. This type of preparation is taking place in our state at all of these levels."

To further commemorate and remember this great fire siege of 1947, the state of Maine and its fire services have planned a number of events this summer and continuing through October. For the dates and locations of these events, call the Maine Forest Service at 207-827-6191; the contact person is James Downie, fire prevention specialist.

Thanks to Joyce Butler, Maine State Supervisor Tom Parent and The Brick Store Museum of Kennebunk, ME, for their assistance with this article, and to Richard Eisenhower, curator of the museum.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department.