The Great Acadia Fire 70 Years Later

On October 17, 1947, a fire started in Bar Harbor, Maine, that spread through the town and Acadia National Park. Meanwhile, wildfires sprang up across the drought-stricken Northeast, posing unprecedented challenges. Newspaper headlines blazed, winds shifted, and forests and towns burned while communities grappled with understanding and trying to control the wildfires. By the time the ash settled, the people affected knew that they must prepare in new ways for the next big one.

In October 2017, 70 years after the catastrophic fires, partner agencies and organizations came together to commemorate these historic events and share lessons learned about fire science and wildfire preparedness since the catastrophic 1947 fires. This series of events brought people together from all sectors of the community. It was truly a partnership event, and the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange gives a huge thanks to the Maine Forest Service, Acadia National Park Fire Management Office, Bar Harbor Historical Society, the Mount Desert Island Fire Chiefs, all the speakers and participants, and the partnership between the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact and our own NAFSE organizers and community representatives.

This event was awe inspiring. On Monday, October 16, a scientific panel convened at the Schoodic Institute to address land manager preparedness under different climate scenarios. On Tuesday, October 17, Bar Harbor Fire Department hosted several tables of 1947 fire information and showcased antique historical firefighting equipment. Tuesday evening, the panel featured Lloyd Irland presenting on "What Happened" in the 1947 fire, Bill Patterson showing the data on "Could it Happen Again," and Tom Parent outlining "What if It Happened Again." These gentlemen were joined by four Mount Desert Island Fire Chiefs, plus Tony Davis from Acadia National Park and Jeff Currier from the Maine Forest Service Rangers who answered audience questions.

On Wednesday, October 18, we had an amazing field trip group, including many Maine Forest Service Rangers and NAFSE community members who contributed to active and great conversation. Our bus tour traced the path of the 1947 fire, and at each stop, we talked about operations, fire behavior, changes since then, and the need for more public engagement in wildfire preparedness. Doctoral student Jess Charpentier and Professor Emeritus Dr. Bill Patterson III shared information on fire ecology research.

At the first stop, Lake Wood, participants learned that the pollen record shows fire was part of this landscape. Every 100-200 years, a large fire or wind event caused a shift in the tree species composition. Spruce-fir forest belongs in this landscape and should be so managed. Study plots could help resource managers and fire experts work better together within the Park.

The group stopped at a vista near Dolliver’s Dump, the site of the 1947 Acadia fire ignition. Today, under the same conditions, the Maine Forest Service and partners would have been able to hold the fire to the first 160 acres (pre-blowup). Firefighting equipment and communications have improved, structural protections are better, and fire departments are better coordinated and prepared. Additionally, forewarning and weather predictions are much better, and we can plan tactics accordingly.

At the Eagle Lake stop, we learned how research documented the increase in downed trees and fuel load from 1980, to 1992, to 2016. The fuel loads measured at this site are fairly consistent with those in parts of Mount Desert Island that escaped the 1947 fire. We were reminded to “prepare for the average worst.” You never know exactly where, when, and how bad a fire might break out, but you can prepare for a window of disaster based on the hazardous conditions.

From the top of Cadillac Mountain, the group enjoyed a vista of pitch pine stands that are a living testament to the fire history in Acadia National Park. Meanwhile, the wind and sweeping perspective helped the group picture how the fire traveled across the island 70 years earlier.

At the last stop, the Tarn, the group was shown more vegetation plots that illustrated where the fire burned through. The site yielded hardwood species, but also spruce regeneration. Spruce scorched (but not charred) during the 1947 fire retained cones, which later regenerated into the spruce understory that exists in this unburned stand today.

One of the most powerful elements of the field trip was the fact that our weather was almost identical to the conditions of 70 years ago. When we stood at the Mount Desert Island high school and listened to a dramatic reading by Dave Crary of an account of the 1947 fire crowning and jumping the road, winds picked up out of the west and it was easy to imagine what happened 70 years ago on that very spot. What an amazing experience to retrace the path of the Great Acadia Fire of 1947 with experts in the field! 

The Forest Stewards Guild is a partner in the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange. To learn more about this partnership, please visit www.firesciencenorthatlantic.org.

For more information about the 1947 fires, please visit http://www.northeastwildfire.org/1947-fire.

Thank you to Amanda Mahaffey, Forest Stewards Guild, for this event summary.