Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2017.

Maine Burned

70 years later, remembering the state’s wildfires of 1947

BY ANGELO VERZONI

In the fall of 1947, a series of devastating wildfires swept the state of Maine, torching over 200,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 homes in the worst month of wildfire activity the state has ever experienced.

That year, the spring was especially rainy, and vegetation grew thick. Then summer came, and the rain stopped. The woods became bone-dry. The extreme conditions continued into the fall.

In a 2012 article in the Portland Press Herald, resident Elaine Frederick Killelea recalled October 1947. Small wildfires began popping up in wooded areas around the southeastern part of the state, but no one paid much attention at first. “But by October 7,” she wrote, “even the most preoccupied of us began to notice the constant smell of wood smoke in the air and the red glow in the night sky.”

Fanned by high winds, the fires spread across the state’s southernmost counties. Kennebunkport, a popular tourist destination, was one of the hardest-hit towns. “The destruction at Goose Rocks Beach [a village in Kennebunkport] was shocking,” wrote Joyce Butler in Wildfire Loose, her 1979 book on the fires. “Evacuees and summer residents who hurried back found row upon row of blackened chimneys rising out of the smoldering ash heaps. Goose Rocks Beach looked like pictures they’d seen during the war of bombed-out European cities.”

On October 17, about 100 miles northeast of Portland, another wildfire broke out on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park. It started in a cranberry bog, smoldering underground for a few days before exploding into a blaze that quickly consumed thousands of acres. Property losses were immense in an area that was home to super-rich families like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. “The fire swept down Millionaires’ Row, an impressive collection of majestic summer cottages,” according to the National Park Service. “Sixty-seven of these seasonal estates were destroyed.” The fire also burned 170 permanent homes and five large historic hotels near downtown Bar Harbor. The fire raged for nearly a month and burned over 17,000 acres of land on the island.

Estimates of deaths in the Maine fires range from none to as many as 16. Regardless, the fires had a lasting impact and “proved a wake-up call to the entire state,” Killelea wrote. Towns organized fire departments, purchasing equipment and focusing on training, communication, and mutual-aid plans. The fires also prompted the formation of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact, an agreement between the six New England states, New York, and four Canadian provinces to ensure the sharing of information and resources during large wildfires.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: NFPA Library