Devastating forest fires raged across Maine in October 1947, burning nearly 206,000 acres in 200 locations from northern York County to the Hancock County coast.
Wildfires greater than 100 acres affected 35 Maine communities, burned major portions of 17 of those towns, and completely razed nine of them. More than 2,600 structures were destroyed, 10,000 people were injured, 16 people died, and many millions of dollars in damages were caused by the incredible conflagrations. It’s little wonder, then, that 1947 is often remembered as “the year Maine burned.”
Hikers can get a sense of these historic fires of 70 years ago this month by taking to any number of trails that meander across the once ruined landscapes. On Mount Desert Island, for example, the ’47 fire destroyed 17,000 acres, including 11,000 acres of Acadia National Park. Cadillac Mountain, Dorr Mountain and Champlain Mountain were all heavily burned over as the fire raged east and south from Town Hill to Sand Beach.
On the North Ridge Trail of Cadillac Mountain, you can look down on Bar Harbor and only imagine the terrified residents trying to escape the blaze as it roared toward town. Blocked from evacuating along Route 3, many fled to the town pier and were eventually rescued by fishermen from several towns across Frenchman Bay. Bulldozers were finally able to open up the road and 700 cars carrying 2,000 people streamed north to safety.
The fire dramatically altered the composition of the forest canopy on eastern Mount Desert Island. The once thick spruce and fir woods that grew here before the fire have been naturally replaced by sun-loving pioneer species like birch and aspen, and from the trail on the north slope of Cadillac you can trace the wavy swaths of these hardwoods across the hills and valleys below that define, more or less, the mind-boggling extent of the blaze through this part of the island.
Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Edwin L. Smith Preserve in Kennebunkport and the Waterboro Barrens in Waterboro and Shapleigh are other good locations to take a hike through areas affected by the October 1947 fires. Check with the historical societies in all of these towns for lots of great local information on the fire.
Several factors contributed to the great fires of 1947. Excessive slash remained on the ground, left by a hurricane in 1938 and a severe snowstorm in 1945. Also, 1947 was a “cone year,” when the coniferous trees produced an abundant supply of seed-filled cones. And while the winter of 1946-47 had a normal amount of snowfall, the summer season that followed saw a pronounced lack of rain, unusually high temperatures and low humidity, which combined to dry out not only the accumulated wealth of fuel in the woods but the living growth as well. By early October, these drought conditions had turned Maine into a tinderbox.
On Oct. 7, the Maine Forest Service received reports of numerous small fires, which were subsequently extinguished. Over the next week, however, concern mounted as fires were reported over an ever larger geographic area.
By mid-October colossal fires fanned by gusty winds were sweeping through a host of York County towns. On Mount Desert Island, wind-driven fires were incinerating the summer cottages, grand old hotels and homes of Bar Harbor and large chunks of the national park next door.
For several weeks, thousands of volunteer firefighters, military personnel, ordinary citizens and many others from Maine and well beyond courageously battled the fires, until they were finally declared under control by month’s end amid a change in the weather and most welcome rains. It was mid-November before the worst fire disaster in Maine’s history was pronounced completely out.
“Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned” by Joyce Butler is an excellent account of the tragic fires, where they started and how they spread, as well as the brave men and women who worked tirelessly in the extraordinary effort to extinguish the flames.