Staff Ride to the Bar Harbor Fire

 

On Friday, October 17, 1947, at 4 p.m., the Bar Harbor, Maine, Fire Department received a call from a Mrs. Gilbert. She reported smoke rising from a cranberry bog between her home and Acadia National Park. No one knows what started the fire. It could have been cranberry pickers smoking cigarettes in the bog or a trash fire at the dump. Whatever the cause, once ignited, the fire smoldered underground. From this quiet beginning arose an inferno that burned nearly half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island and made international news.

In its first three days, the fire burned a relatively small area, blackening only 169 acres. But on October 21, strong winds fanned the flames. The blaze spread rapidly and raged out of control, engulfing over 2,000 acres. Personnel from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, University of Maine forestry program, and Bangor Theological Seminary joined local firefighting crews. National Park Service employees flew in from parks throughout the eastern United States.

Evacuation of the residents quickly became an issue. At one point all roads from the town were blocked by flames, and local fishermen prepared to help with a mass exodus by boat as gale-force winds fanned the inferno. Finally, bulldozers opened a pathway through the flames and smoldering remains of homes, and a caravan of 700 cars and 2,000 people made it to safety.

In all, about 17,188 acres burned, about half of which were in Acadia National Park. Property damage exceeded $23 million in 1947 dollars. Statewide in 1947, more than 200,000 acres, 851 permanent homes, and 397 seasonal cottages were destroyed in "the year Maine burned."

The fire on Mount Desert Island was publicized in newspaper headlines around the world because the island was a renowned summer retreat for the wealthy. Additionally, the fires of 1947 eventually led to the formation of many cooperative firefighting agreements and the establishment of the first forest fire protection compact, the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact.

The Bar Harbor Fire of 1947 staff ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Karen Anderson - National Park Service, Acadia National Park
  • Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • Jeff Currier - Maine Forest Service, Downeast District
  • Chad Fisher - National Park Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Rick Henion - Maine Forest Service, Downeast District
  • Doug Jones - National Park Service, Acadia National Park
  • Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Rick Lancaster - National Park Service, Acadia National Park
  • Fred Olson - National Park Service, Acadia National Park
  • Scott "Dusty" Warner - National Park Service, Acadia National Park
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel Map

Travel Map

Topo map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

Topo map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

Orthophoto showing fire progression

Orthophoto showing fire progression

Audio/Visual References


Google Earth fly-around animation of the Bar Harbor area.


October Fury 1947, Maine's Forest Fire Disasters, A Look Back At the Infamous Fires 50 Years Later was developed in 1997.

Collection of historical photos 

Documents and Publications

*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Local Contact Information

Acadia National Park
P.O. Box 177
Bar Harbor, Maine 04609
Phone (207) 288-3338

Dolliver's Dump as it looked in 1947 and 1983. The dump is considered to be the point of origin of the fire.

Dolliver's Dump as it looked in 1947 and 1983. The dump is considered to be the point of origin of the fire.

The Bar Harbor Fire of 1947, sometimes referred to as the Mount Desert Island Fire, started on Friday, October 17, 1947. The Bar Harbor Fire Department received a call at 1605 reporting a fire at Dolliver's Dump on the Crooked Road. They responded with one pumper truck and four personnel. Arriving at 1618, they found a rapidly spreading one-acre fire on the edge of Fresh Meadow. A direct attack was made, and an additional 16 men arrived. Fire Chief David Sleeper called Acadia National Park for additional resources at 1645; they responded with a fire truck, a dump truck, two portable pumps, and five men. Winds at the time were southwest at 8 to 10 miles per hour. The fire was burning across the bog and into the adjoining forestland. With these additional resources, crews worked through the night, and by noon on October 18 it had been contained at about 100 acres. Mopup and active patrolling continued through the evening of October 20.

 
Traveling along Crooked Road toward the photo point, turn left onto Betsy's Road to park for Stand 1. The turn to Betsy's Road can be seen off to the right in the center of the photo. Stand 1 is the vista on the north side of the road.

Traveling along Crooked Road toward the photo point, turn left onto Betsy's Road to park for Stand 1. The turn to Betsy's Road can be seen off to the right in the center of the photo. Stand 1 is the vista on the north side of the road.

Dolliver's Dump was on the edge of Fresh Meadow. The fire spread from the dump, across the meadow, and into the timber.

Dolliver's Dump was on the edge of Fresh Meadow. The fire spread from the dump, across the meadow, and into the timber.

 

A strong northeast wind picked up early in the morning of October 21. The fire, which was still under patrol, escaped its control lines, crossing the Crooked Road at about 0745. A general alarm was sounded at 0800 for resources to fight the rapidly spreading flames. By 1000 Chief Sleeper called Dow Army Air Base requesting manpower; they were able to send 225 officers and soldiers to the efforts. By 1600 the fire had swept southeasterly, crossing the Eagle Lake Road to the shore of Eagle Lake, and was burning on the National Park lands. By the evening, when the winds abated somewhat, an additional 1,000 acres burned.

Resource reinforcement and adjustments were made and line construction efforts were progressing reasonably well on October 22 when northwest winds increased around noon. The fire again escaped control lines, crowning through an additional 800 acres before the winds switched to the southwest and the fire spread slowed.

The National Park Service interpretive sign at the 1947 fire overlook off of Paradise Hill Road. This is Stand 2.

The National Park Service interpretive sign at the 1947 fire overlook off of Paradise Hill Road. This is Stand 2.

Regeneration seen looking (from left to right) at Champlain, Dorr, and Cadillac Mountains. Notice the smoke from hazard fuel reduction burning in the left foreground.

Regeneration seen looking out (from left to right)  Champlain, Dorr, and Cadillac Mountains. Notice the smoke from hazard fuel reduction burning in the left foreground.

By the morning of October 23, personnel and equipment from all over the northeastern United States were being brought in to fight this fire. During the morning hours, a stiff southwesterly wind pushed the fire toward the community of Hulls Cove and northern portions of Bar Harbor. Structures were already being lost and major evacuation efforts were underway when, at about 1500, a frontal passage arrived earlier than predicted, bringing 40 to 50 mile per hour winds from the northwest.

Despite large numbers of firefighters, soldiers from Dow Airfield, and volunteers from neighboring towns, the University of Maine, and even Bangor Theological Seminary, the strong winds and the extremely dry fuels resulted in extreme fire behavior which defied all containment efforts. Once the winds shifted and reached gale force, the evacuation of civilians and firefighters became the only priority. On the southwest side of the fire, located in the National Park, containment efforts were progressing well through the early part of the day until the major wind shift caused the fire to blow up.  The priority there also shifted to firefighter safety and evacuation.

The fire escaped control in all sectors. The community of Hulls Cove was spared the worst but flames swept towards the village of Bar Harbor. Roaring from the northwest, it rolled over the low shoulder hills and the western residential areas where numerous million-dollar hotels and mansions had been built. These summer homes and recreational facilities built by and for the wealthy families of the northeast were almost exclusively built of wood and would be almost impossible to protect even with today's equipment. Surprisingly, the town center and waterfront were spared destruction. The fire swept through and past the village, consuming the Jackson Laboratory, and ran unchecked to the sea along the area called Ocean Drive. Three hundred dwellings were lost in Bar Harbor that day.

Evacuation efforts began early when the control lines failed. About 2,000 residents of Bar Harbor had been collected at the town's athletic field by noon but were moved to the town dock once the fire advanced to the edge of town. However, evacuation by boat would prove to be very limited due to a small number of boats available because of high wind and rough seas. Fortunately, as the fire swept past and spared the downtown and dock area, evacuation by sea became unnecessary. Vehicle convoys were able to move evacuees to the mainland once the main threat passed. Despite all the structures destroyed and all the panic and displacement, only two lives were lost in the fire.

This photo was taken from Stand 3 which is an overlook approximately half way up the Cadillac Mountain Road. Fuels seen in the foreground are similar to those found on Cadillac Mountain in 1947.

This photo was taken from Stand 3 which is an overlook approximately halfway up the Cadillac Mountain Road. Fuels seen in the foreground are similar to those found on Cadillac Mountain in 1947.

View of Bar Harbor and Frenchman's Bay beyond. The fire burned to the edge of town, moving from the left to the right, continued past Bar Harbor, and was eventually pushed to the water's edge.

View of Bar Harbor and Frenchman's Bay beyond. The fire burned to the edge of town, moving from the left to the right, continued past Bar Harbor, and was eventually pushed to the water's edge.

Because this area did not burn in 1947, one can see the loading and type of fuels that existed on much of the island prior to the fire. Low areas tend to be dominated by large spruce, cedar, fir, and white pine. Where soil and weather conditions permit, hardwood trees figure into the mix. At higher elevations, the trees show weather stress as sub-alpine conditions are reached. In most of the area, especially where the softwoods are dominant, a duff layer exists which can extend deep into the ground in the gaps and cracks between rocks and ledges. This figured heavily in the extensive mopup required after a fire moved through an area.

The north parking lot for Jordan Pond provides large parking area but can be busy. There are visitor services available at Jordan Pond.

The north parking lot for Jordan Pond is a large parking area but can be busy. There are visitor services available at Jordan Pond.

Jordan Pond looking north with The Bubbles in the background. The area south of Jordan Pond did not burn in 1947 and gives an indication of the fuel loading that was present prior to the fire.

Jordan Pond looking north with The Bubbles in the background. The area south of Jordan Pond did not burn in 1947 and gives an indication of the fuel loading that was present prior to the fire.

 
Mature red spruce and balsam fir near Stand 4 give an indication of the ground and ladder fuels present during the 1947 fire.

Mature red spruce and balsam fir near Stand 4 give an indication of the ground and ladder fuels present during the 1947 fire.

The tight canopy seen in this photo is similar to that found in 1947. Much of the fire's spread was from crown fire.

The tight canopy seen in this photo is similar to that found in 1947. Much of the fire's spread was from crown fire.

 

By October 24 the gale force winds had subsided. The fire managers of the National Park Service met to collect, assess, and reorganize their equipment and personnel. Wilbur Savage was designated as Fire Boss, and subsequent organizational and tactical assignments were made. Supplies and personnel poured in from all over the United States as the evacuation of residents continued.

Control lines in the form of hose line, dozer lines, and hand lines were established and defended. The fire made no rapid advances after the morning of October 24. On October 27, the fire was declared contained. As rains moved into the area and reinforcement of control lines and mopup operations continued, the fire was declared out at 1600 on November 14. The fire had burned a total of 17,333 acres, 8,750 of which was on Acadia National Park lands.

The Mount Desert Island Fire, along with the other wildfires which burned over 200,000 acres across the state of Maine that fall, resulted in a major reassessment of the needs, threats, hazards, and costs of fighting wildlfires locally, statewide, and nationally. Locally, recovery from fire would take years; however, it became the number one priority. Fire departments quickly replaced lost or destroyed equipment and immediately began upgrading their ability to tackle wildland fires so that the 1947 fire situation would never be repeated. Policies, standards, and cooperative agreements were developed at all levels and are still in force today in order to coordinate a rapid, effective response to any wildland emergency.

The town of Seal Harbor was threatened but not burned as the fire stopped about a mile inland.

The town of Seal Harbor was threatened but not burned as the fire stopped about a mile inland.

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The parking area near the intersection of Stanley Brook Road and Route 3 is a good place for the integration summary phase of the staff ride.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2020-06-03