A Tale of Two Fires
Tale One: The Great Fire of 1947
In October of 1947, hundreds of thousands of acres burned in the state of Maine. These wildfires occurred after an abnormally dry summer. In Bar Harbor, this is referred to as the “Great Fire of 1947”. The diagram below shows how most of the Eastern side of the island was devastated by this fire that burned out of control for 10 days. All told there were about 150 fires that burned that one week from October 17th to October 24th with about 23 million dollars worth of damage statewide, by 1947 living standards, and about 200,000 acres in southern Maine and Bar Harbor area.
The Chamber of Commerce history files describe the fire as follows:
“No one knows exactly how it started, but they know where… in a cranberry bog near Salisbury Cove, and they know when… on October 17, 1947.
The summer had been exceptionally dry, seasoned for burning. But after three days, the fire had consumed only 169 acres. Islanders breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, on October 21, the fire intensified. Winds came up, fanning the flames. Powerful gusts and gales forced the fire every which way—along Eagle Lake and toward Hulls Cove—spreading the damage across more than 2,000 acres.
When it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, the firestorm escalated and headed into Bar Harbor. There was no stopping it. In just three hours, a three-mile wide swath of flames traveled six miles into downtown. It totally devastated vast sections of Bar Harbor, incinerating 67 summer cottages, 5 grand hotels, and 170 year-round homes. It cut off all roads out of town, trapping vacationers and residents, as it raced toward Otter Point, destroying The Jackson Laboratory on its way.”
The summer “cottages” that the Chamber article refers to, were not really cottages, but mansions built by the exceedingly wealthy (now referred to as the 1%). Occurring, when it did in 1947, after the Great Depression and WWII, few of these families chose to rebuild their “cottages”, and thus an era was ended. The few blocks in Bar Harbor closest to the harbor were spared and today many of those homes have been converted into Bed and Breakfasts/Inns and are much admired.
Tale Two: San Diego, 2007
I can appreciate the panic and fear that the people of Mount Desert Island must have felt in 1947. In October of 2007 I was visiting friends in the San Diego area. The morning after I arrived it was gorgeous; typical San Diego weather. I was enjoying myself by the pool, drinking tea and reading the Sunday paper when the winds began to shift. It was the dreaded “Santa Anna” winds. Keep in mind that by the time October rolls around in Southern California there has been virtually no rain for nearly six months. The only moisture available is what rolls in with fog banks. Santa Anna winds shift the breeze from the west (off the ocean), to the east (from the desert).
It was only few hours later that the word came that a couple of fires had started, but they were more than 100 miles away. However, as the day went on, the winds picked up all that dry grass and scrub was like kindling. The fires quickly spread as sparks flew and ignited new fires. By Sunday afternoon, the smoke was visible on the horizon:
Needless to say, none of us got much sleep that night as the winds howled. Sometime during the night we lost power. By that point the winds had loosened a portion of the solar system used to heat my friends’ swimming pool. With every gust of wind, it would lift up the loose section and “BOOM”, slam it back down again on the roof. We congregated in the downstairs living room, and used the wind up transistor radio to keep abreast of the latest information.
By the next morning, power was restored, but things were looking rather grim. People (friends of my friends) started arriving with their pets and valuables looking for a safe haven. The smoke was getting thicker by the hour (see picture above), and everyone was glued to television. By this point, nearly all of Southern California was dealing with wildfires. One of the things that made this situation so frightening was that many of the highways had been closed due to fires and/or fire fighting efforts limiting the options that people had about where to go. My friends had a great plan; head to the harbor and take their boat. There was only one problem, they were in between boats and the new one was waiting in Mexico to be picked up!!
In the picture above, you can see the ash beginning to fall like snow (yes, this is San Diego’s version of snow). It is mid afternoon, and almost dark from the smoke. By this point, there were 14 people, 3 dogs, 2 cats, several guinea pigs and assorted other critters all stationed at my friends’ house. However, it was looking more and more likely that their neighborhood would also be evacuated if the fire breached the highway a few miles from their home. And indeed, a few hours later that is what happened.
We headed south, and through the generosity of a friend, of a friend, of a friend found a place to spend the night; along with our entourage of people and animals. By the next morning, the winds had died down, and shifted direction giving the fire fighters a “fighting chance” to get things under control. The evacuation order was lifted, and we were able to return home.
Fortunately, for everyone in our party all that we suffered was some inconvenience, and a lot of stress. Others in Southern California that year were not so lucky. The extraordinary efforts of the firefighters saved many lives and much property. But I am sure there were moments of despair as there were for the firefighters of Maine in 1947. From the Chamber of Commerce article: “Firefighters, assisted by the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and a host of volunteers, struggled to contain the blaze. From across the eastern United States, National Park Service employees arrived to help. But the fire had a mind of its own.”
Living now in an area where forest fires are a REAL concern, and where fire danger levels are discussed and published daily has been interesting for me. Earlier this spring, when hiking normally damp and boggy trails turned bone dry due to lack of rain (we made up for in May), I got to thinking about the Great fire of 1947 and my own experience in San Diego in 2007. While it was an adventure, and a “vacation” I’ll remember, it is not an experience I care to repeat!