USA: Oct. 22–The massive forest fires of 1947 did not result from any single event, such as the severe drought that summer and fall.
Instead, it was a cascade of contributing factors: drought, poor communication, dead wood from the historic 1938 hurricane or winter blowdowns, and untold amounts of “slash” left on the ground by the intensive lumbering operations to supply timber for World War II and the postwar housing boom.
Add in a few carelessly tossed cigarette butts, or errant embers from a cooking fire, and the strong winds of Oct. 21-23 fanned a fast-moving rash of forest fires beyond the capability of Maine’s loosely organized firefighting crews.
“The drought was certainly a factor, but if you didn’t have those winds, it probably wouldn’t have gotten up in the crowns” of the trees, said Kent Nelson, fire prevention and forest ranger specialist with the Maine Forest Service.
The fires were in many ways a wake-up call to communities and the state about the need for more advanced firefighting tools, as well as improved cooperation among towns.
In his 1948 post-fire summary, Deputy Forest Commissioner Austin Wilkins laid out his argument for more state coordination.
“It is frankly admitted that there was no fire control action plan to meet such a conflagration,” Wilkins wrote. “Certainly there was insufficient equipment and preparation for forest fire fighting operations on such a gigantic scale. As previously stated, the municipalities had always handled their own fires. It was only when the fires spread beyond town lines and whole communities were engulfed or threatened that the State Forestry Department was asked to take over.”
The ’47 fires resulted in major changes, locally and regionally.
Many local fire departments launched fundraisers to purchase modern tanker and pumper trucks or other equipment. Other towns organized fire departments for the first time.
In Augusta, the Legislature gave Maine’s forest commissioner authority over fire control statewide rather than only within the Unorganized Territory, as had been the case in 1947. The state led an aggressive fire-prevention campaign and helped towns obtain equipment.
During the 1947 fires, spotter planes circling overhead could see the flames but often had no way of communicating with firefighting crews on the ground, short of landing and sending a courier. Town fire chiefs and state rangers also lacked effective communication tools, which greatly hampered firefighting crews’ ability to work together or shift the focus to hotter areas.
But by 1950, all forest rangers in the organized portions of the state were armed with wireless radio equipment to improve communication. The state also built new fire towers around Maine.
Additionally, in June 1949, Congress created the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact that allowed all of the New England states plus New York to provide mutual aid and equipment in the event of a forest fire and collaborate on training. The compact was subsequently expanded to take in five Canadian provinces, including Maine’s neighbors of Quebec and New Brunswick.
Maine forest rangers and wildland fire fighting teams now help battle blazes in Quebec, where large-scale events are more common, as well as in other states. And if another large-scale fire erupted in Maine, Quebec could hypothetically provide the air tankers capable of dropping massive amounts of water on the flames — much more so than the fire baskets employed by Maine helicopters.
Nelson, at the Maine Forest Service, listed the compact among the most significant developments linked directly to the 1947 fires. “The main thing we see on an almost daily basis is the training,” Nelson said. “We don’t have as many fires in the Northeast as they do out West . . . and for us to put on higher-level training courses, one state doesn’t have the buying power to put that together.”
All that being said, such anniversaries inevitably beg the question: Could it happen again?
Experts say a fire on the scale of the 1947 conflagration is certainly less likely, given the enormous improvements in communications, monitoring and firefighting equipment in Maine during the past 70 years. Maine’s wet climate, ecologically diverse forests and topography are different from that of many western states where massive spring- and summertime forest fires have unfortunately become the norm. Yet the late-fall fires near the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016 — which killed 14 and caused an estimated $500 million in damage in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, alone — underscored that large-scale, destructive forest fires are not merely a western problem.
Nelson pointed out that the “load” of combustible dead trees, sticks and other materials in southern Maine’s forests “is going up and up.”
“We have not had as many fires that consumed those fuels, and there is more development,” Nelson said. “So from the fuel load perspective, the potential for a 1947-type fire is there.”
Joyce Butler, who wrote the 1977 book “Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned” and talked to countless Mainers who lived through the 1947 fires, also believes the potential is there.
“Absolutely, it could happen,” Butler said. “The fires started because of conditions in nature, and that could still be the case if we have a drought . . . and if everything was dry in the woods and there is slash in the woods. Sure, the firefighters are better prepared, but if nature goes on a rampage, that is the governing force.”
William Patterson, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who specializes in forest ecology and fire management, said New England has cyclical dry spells resulting in drought during September and October. That was the case in 1947, and it appears to be the case today given the drought conditions in 2016 and 2017. In fact, the current drought index on Mount Desert Island is nearly as high as it was in 1947, Patterson said.
Patterson said firefighters certainly have better tools, monitoring and communication than they did in 1947. But even with his decades of research on forest fires, Patterson said “it blew my mind” to see such large, destructive fires last year in the Great Smoky Mountains around Thanksgiving, which is not typically a fire-prone season.