BAR HARBOR — The good news is, firefighting technology and capabilities have improved dramatically since a fire burned thousands of acres on Mount Desert Island 70 years ago this week. Communication and cooperation between local, state, trans-state and even international wildfire “compacts” is vastly improved.
The bad news is, fire continues to be a very real danger.
“We had one inch of rain recorded here Sept. 7,” forest ecologist Bill Patterson told a group of firefighters and residents at The Criterion Theatre Tuesday, the anniversary of the ignition of the ’47 fire. “Without that, we could be over 500 on the drought index.”
He called those conditions “one rain away” from concerning levels of fire danger. And high winds, which powered the growth of the ’47 fire, are very unpredictable.
Patterson said it’s unlikely that a fire that size could get going here now. The acreage of forest burned in wildland fires in Maine every year is much smaller now than it was back then, he said. In fact, it’s less than the area burned intentionally with prescribed burns.
“It would be unimaginable to me that something like the ’47 fire could happen again,” he said, “except for the fact that we’re having similar things happen in California right now.”
The panel presentation was organized by the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange.
Fire science consultant Lloyd Irland discussed the history of the ’47 fire. He said the summer and fall of that year had been extraordinarily dry.
“Wet spots on MDI were dryer than anyone had seen in living memory,” Irland said. There was no appreciable rain between mid-July and Nov. 8 that year.
Lots of fires were raging across Maine and Atlantic Canada. Some were so intense that they spread to islands a half-mile offshore.
So while some mutual aid did arrive in Bar Harbor from towns like Surry and Brewer, much of the response from state and regional organizations was, “You’re on your own.”
When fire service organizations in Maine regrouped in the winter of 1947 after snowfall finally put an end to the fire season, they saw a need for closer coordination and communication.
“That’s why I’m here,” said Tom Parent, the director of the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact. The compact was created after the 1947 fire season, with the legislatures of several New England states acting to join the new group in 1949. It works as an organizing body to send resources to large fire events, ones that are too big for a single state or province to attack. They also help coordinate and standardize training, communications systems and equipment so mutual aid can be as effective as possible.
The compact now includes all New England states plus New York, the provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as well as the National Park Service. Prince Edward Island signed on just last year.
Mount Desert Island fire chiefs Matt Bartlett, Jack Martel, Keith Higgins and Mike Bender were on hand to discuss fire protection today, along with Tony Davis, North Country Fire Management officer for Acadia National Park and Bill Hamilton, chief forest ranger of the Maine Forest Service.