The Great Fires of 1947

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.