In the Summer of 1947, Maine experienced the worst forest fires in the history of New England. This series of fires consumed around 200,000 acres and killed 16 people. These fires have come to be known as the Great Fires of 1947.
Around 90 percent of the 33,215 square miles of land in Maine
is wooded and about 99 percent of the state is rural.
Today, most large-scale forest fires are in Western states, like California, Oregon and Montana. In 2021, more than 3.8 million acres burned in these three states, which is more than the area of the entire State of Connecticut. Meanwhile, in 2021, only about 2600 acres burned in New England. Of these, less than 400 acres were in Maine, which has more than 20 million acres of forests.
Maine’s population in 1947 was about 900,000, which is only about two-thirds of its current population.
The Spring of 1947 was a wet one for Maine. Rainfall in April, May and June was well above average. This was followed by a dramatic change to record high temperatures and drought conditions in July. The heat and drought continued through August and into September. Some communities experienced more than 100 days without rain. With around 90 percent of Maine being forest, the risk of fire created by the extremely dry conditions was severe. In response to the fire threat, the Maine Forest Service continued to operate fire watch towers into October.
Volunteers stand by helplessly as a wall of fire approaches. Brooms
and Indian tanks were no match against such a wall of flames.
The first forest fires broke out on October 6 and 7 near Poland, Wells and Bowdoin. Local volunteer fire departments responded. The extremely dry state of the forest and the windy conditions accelerated the spread of the fires. Near Poland 100 acres burned before volunteers contained that fire. The Bowdoin fire proved to be very hard to fight and would consume around 5500 acres.
The Great Fires of 1947 involved more than 200 individual forest
fires. Ten of which each burned more than 1000 acres.
Over the next week, more than a dozen additional fires broke out. The largest of these was a fire near Standish. This started on October 12 and consumed around 1000 acres. Local firefighters were hard pressed to check the spread of the many new fires.
On October 17, a three mile wide wall of flames descended on Bar Harbor.
These additional fires consumed hundreds of acres. They soon threatened many rural communities. The situation took a turn for the worse on October 17 when several new fires were reported. These included a major fire near Bar Harbor, 170 miles northeast from the earlier fires. This fire spread six miles in less than three hours scorching a path three miles wide towards the wealthy resort town. The fire would go on to burn more than 17,000 acres.
The Town of Shapleigh had a population of around 500 in 1947 but it did not have a fire department. It was one of the first communities devastated by the Great Fires.
In York County, a fire burned furiously between Shapleigh and Waterboro on October 17. Waterboro’s volunteer firefighters worked through the night to check the spread of the fire. Shapleigh did not have a fire department and that side of the fire advanced unchecked. By October 19, the fire consumed Shapleigh and Waterboro burning more than 1200 acres. Ultimately, about three-quarters of the land in Waterboro burned, including the town’s center and 133 homes. The fires then burned their way into the towns of Alfred, Dayton, Kennebunkport, Lyman, Newfield and Wells.
The schoolhouse in Dayton is seen in the path of the wildfire. Dayton was
devastated by the fire. The town hall and 27 homes were destroyed.
The wind-driven fires burned from west to east. An eight-mile-wide wall of fire crossed U.S. Route 1 and burned into the coastal cities of Saco and Biddeford. In North Waterboro, 60 residents and firefighters were cut off by fire. They were trapped for more than an hour before they were able to make their way to safety. Elsewhere, more than 400 people had to be evacuated by sea.
This 1920s era Maxim pumper is supplied fed by a Texaco gasoline
Tanker, which has been pressed into service as a water tanker.
The coastal towns and cities had well-established fire departments. However, many smaller rural communities lacked organized fire protection. All communities in the path of the fires were faced with a wind-swept sea of flames that exceeded local resources. There was not enough fire apparatus and equipment. Most of the volunteers who turned out to fight the fires lacked formal firefighting training. There also were significant issues with communications and the coordination of firefighting efforts.
More than 300 students from Bates College helped fight the fires.
Firefighters from all parts of Maine, as well as Massachusetts and New Hampshire joined the battle. Firefighters from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York also responded to help the beleaguered and exhausted Maine firefighters. More than 300 male students from Bates College volunteered to help fight the fire. Many female Bates students volunteered in non-firefighting capacities. Other students from the University of Maine and the Bangor Theological Seminary also helped to fight the fires.
Fighting a forest fire is a labor intensive endeavor that can be made much more difficult by terrain and access issues. In this photo volunteers are seen stretching a hose line along the flank of a fire to cut off its spread.
Firefighters used all the resources that they could muster. Scores of milk and fuel tanker trucks were pressed into service as water tankers. Countless other trucks were used to move men and equipment. Firefighters made the most of their limited fire apparatus. In one instance, firefighters in Waterboro relay pumped with six pumpers through 9200 feet of hose to save several homes.
A civilian tank truck, a pumper and a trailer mounted firefighting pump
work together to establish a water supply at the height of the 1947 fires.
Coast Guard personnel from across Maine were detailed to firefighting. The National Park Service sent help from many East Coast parks. The United States Navy also joined the fight. The light cruiser, USS Little Rock, was diverted from its scheduled visit to Boston and directed to Portland. Sailors were sent ashore to help firefighters. Their efforts helped save the town of Hollis and several other small communities.
Firefighters hose down the ruins of a barn that was consumed by fire.
By early November, the last of the fires were extinguished. Between October 13 and October 27, more than 200 fires burned. Three dozen of these fires each burned more than 100 acres. Ten burned more than 1000 acres. York County had the two worst fires. The Biddeford fire consumed around 22,000 acres. The largest fire was the Shapleigh fire, which consumed 109,000 acres.
In many places, only the chimneys remained of homes. Around 2500 people were left homeless and another 3000 or 4000 were temporarily displaced by the fires.
The Great Fires of 1947 burned around 200,000 acres along with 851 homes, 397 seasonal cottages, hundreds of barns as well as around 1100 other structures, including many businesses. Seventeen communities suffered extensive fire damage and nine of these were almost completely burned. Around 2500 people were left homeless and 16 died.
The destruction in some communities was complete. It would take
years for them to rebuild and recover from the Great Fires.
The severity of the 1947 fires was a wake-up call to State and local officials. In January 1948 a statewide firefighting and fire prevention conference was held in Augusta. Over the next two years, many new volunteer fire departments were organized. Firefighter training improved and new equipment and apparatus was purchased. The State established a public safety radio network. The Maine Civil Defense and Public Safety Act of 1949 created the Maine Bureau of Civil Defense. Today this is the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
To learn more about the 1947 Great Fires in Maine, read Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, by Joyce Butler.