MOUNT DESERT — Firefighters today are better trained, better equipped and have more professional backup than those who battled the fire that charred much of the eastern half of Mount Desert Island in 1947, Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender told the board of selectmen last week.
But if a wildfire started under the right conditions – hot, dry and windy – and began to gain momentum, “we would have our hands full, that’s for sure,” Bender said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
Bender’s comments were in response to Selectmen Martha Dudman’s request at the previous board meeting for a report on the town’s wildfire preparedness. She cited the devastation caused by wildfires in California this summer and fall.
Bender said most of the wildfire experts he’s talked with think a fire the size of the one in 1947 “probably would be less likely to occur now.”
In addition to better training and better communications, he said, “one of the biggest things we have going for us is the mutual aid system. All of the fire departments on the island and, really, in Hancock County work very well together.”
He said Acadia National Park and the Maine Forest Service also are valuable resources.
“The park makes available training that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. They provide that free of charge.”
The island’s fire departments, along with Acadia firefighters and the Maine Forest Service, have periodically conducted tabletop exercises to prepare for wildland fires. In June they held a training exercise in which they responded to a simulated fire on the western side of Echo Lake. They plan to hold similar drills every year.
The Mount Desert Fire Department has received a number of federal grants over the years to acquire wildland firefighting equipment such as hand tools, personal protection gear, portable pumps and forestry hoses.
“So, we’re in pretty good shape with that.” Bender said. “We have a lot of factors going for us.”
But what his department and others on the island are lacking is manpower.
“The state and even the federal government can provide help, but it’s going to take a while to get those gears moving and get people here,” Bender said. “So, for the first 24 to 48 hours, we’re probably going to be on our own.”
One possible exception to that is the Maine Forest Service’s helicopters that can be called in to drop water or chemical retardants on a fire.
“That may be available to us right away,” Bender said.
But even with some outside help, he said, “It may be that for the first 12 hours we’re concentrating on getting people off the island, getting people to safety and not even fighting the fire. We may not have the resources to do that.”
Asked by Dudman what a major evacuation effort would look like, Bender said, “it will be a mess; I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I think it’s been known that evacuating the island would be a tall task, especially in the summer.”
He said that at the request of himself and Bar Harbor Fire Chief Matt Bartlett two years ago, the Maine Forest Service conducted a risk-assessment survey of random properties. Based on that, he said the Forest Service is preparing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan for the two towns.
“They plan on making that available and doing a public presentation in the spring for both Mount Desert and Bar Harbor residents,” Bender said. “That will give us some guidelines and show us what we should be concentrating on.
“Right now, the consensus is that the Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor area and the western part of the island are probably at higher risk. That’s because where the fire occurred in 1947 is still pretty much hardwoods that are not as susceptible to an intense wildland fire as the softer woods that were untouched.”
Bender said his department can advise homeowners on ways to protect their property, such as clearing potential fuel for fires from the area around their homes.