SANDWICH The giant boulder, a copper plaque and colorful flags hint at something important.
But with no sidewalk, no parking and the pace of passing cars on Route 130 just south of Exit 2, the memorial is mostly a blur.
On closer inspection, the plaque is a memorial to three fallen firefighters Thomas E. Adams, Ervin Draber and Gordon King lost 70 years ago in a forest fire that ravaged 5,000 acres on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
Three firefighter flags are in front of the memorial and two American flags are planted in the grass to the right. The memorial is located in the shadow of a Smokey Bear sign that reads: “Smokey says please prevent forest fires.”
The memorial is no mystery to the Sandwich Fire Department or retired West Barnstable Fire Chief John Jenkins.
“We clean it up a couple times a year, take care of the flags and make sure we’re remembering these firefighters who lost their lives,” said Jenkins, a member of a group called Cape Cod Foresters and Firefighters Association.
Southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, remains susceptible to fires like the one in 1938, Jenkins said. “Forest fires in Southeastern Massachusetts burn more quickly than any other place in the world other than Los Angeles County,” he said.
The 1938 fire was detailed in the April 28, 1938, Cape Cod edition of the New Bedford Standard Times. Two other firefighters Bourne Deputy Chief Clarence Gibbs and Henry Jarves were seriously injured by the fire.
“Fighting the blaze on the edge of the Shawme State Forest on the edge of the Forestdale Road, the men were building a back fire when a shift in the wind caused by heat from the head blaze created a blazing circle that engulfed the quartet,” the newspaper reported.
“Gibbs, Adams and Draber fell prone to the ground and attempted to crawl to the nearest haven a dirt road running through Shawme Forest and constructed by the CCC workers. Fire shooting through dry brush enveloped the men igniting their clothes and burning their bodies.”
Adams, 42, a volunteer firefighter from Sandwich who owned a wholesale meat business, died the next day.
King, 35, the son of the Sandwich fire warden and who worked in forestry, died April 30.
Draber, 32, of Buzzards Bay died June 10 from complications surrounding a blood transfusion. He was on Cape Cod to help dredge the canal.
The fire started at Camp Edwards where state workers were burning brush, according to the newspaper. The burning brush went out of control while workers were eating lunch, but they were able to quickly extinguish it. “Whether the second one was started by a cigarette butt thrown as the men ran, we do not know,” Gen. Charles H. Cole of the Massachusetts National Guard told about 200 people gathered at a forum days after the fire.
Sandwich selectmen at that time petitioned the state to pay the $2,500 it cost for local departments to battle the blaze. They also requested annuities for the three widows, the newspaper reported.
Today, the Massachusetts Army National Guard Natural Resource Program does prescribed burns on up to 500 acres at the Massachusetts Military Reservation each year, spokeswoman Lynda Wadsworth said.
The goal of the prescribed burns is to reduce the risk of devastating forest fires like the one in 1938 and those being fought today in California. Prescribed burns target the underbrush that fuels those blazes, she said.
What the plaque says: “A tribute by the people of Barnstable County to Thomas E. Adams, Ervin A. Draber, Gordon King, who were trapped, burned and died fighting a forest fire April 27, 1938. Their supreme sacrifice should inspire us all to strive for the goal they sought – the preservation of our forests and wild life.”