For the past few months, western states have been battling wildfires. This past June, 167 members of the California Conservation Corps assisted the US Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as they battled wildfires state wide (Novey, 2015). This is not the first time that AmeriCorps members have been involved in firefighting efforts: just last year, 69 AmeriCorps members with the Washington Conservation Corps put in more than 6,000 hours supporting firefighting camps by coordinating and distributing food, supplies, and equipment (Network, 2014).
Maine’s wildfires are pretty mild compared to those out west. According to the EPA the average number of acres each year burned per square mile in Maine was nearly ‘zero’ between 1984 and 2013. By contrast, Idaho has seen an average of 5.52 acres burn each year per square mile in the same time range (Climate Change Indicators in the United States; Wildfires, 2015).
Still wildfires do happen here. In May of this year, Maine firefighters were controlling a blaze in Lubec that burned over 200 acres of land (Hoey, 2015). The great fires of 1947 caused such significant damage that the week of October the 13th was called the “Week that Maine Burned” (Park, n.d.) (Killelea, 2012).
Exactly fifty years ago today, (August 4th, 2015) the Eric Kelley Peat Bog in Centerville, Maine, became the site of one of the largest fires in Maine’s history, burning over 12,000 acres of land (Cleaves, 1995). At the time the Eric Kelley Peat Bog was the site of peat hauling and harvesting. Workers used bulldozers, trucks, and other heavy machinery to harvest peat, which can be sold as a commodity and has several uses in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing (Bastin & David, 1909) .
On August 4th the peat on the surface of the bog had dried into a dust due to the hot weather and lack of precipitation. It was the perfect condition for a fire to start and spread (Decoster, 1965). All it took was a spark from the exhaust of one of the “Bog Buggies” to ignite the peat dust. The vehicle lacked a muffler and “back-fired” while hauling peat (Cleaves, 1995). Like the fires of 1947, the Centerville Forest Fire preceded legislation aimed at protecting public safety. In weeks following the blaze, the State of Maine passed a new regulation requiring that power equipment not be operated in the woods unless equipped with mufflers and spark arresters (Decoster, 1965).
The workers at the bog first noticed the fire around 10:30 am, and called for assistance from the the fire-tower watchman at Mitten Mountain. The tower watchmen referred the call to Forest Rangers David Grant and Luther Davis of Cherryfield. Grant arrived with Indian Fire Pumps which workers used to try to control the fire. (Decoster, 1965)
The fire spread rapidly due to the dry conditions and 18 mph winds. What had been 2.5 acres at 2pm reached 300-400 acres by nightfall. The Centerville forest fire spread for approximately five days, jumping the Machias River, and a section of Route 192 between the towns of Weaslely and Machias. The number of men involved in the firefighting operation reached over 700 individuals by August 7th. From the beginning there was a scarcity of trained firefighters. Groups from Bucks Harbor, Dow Air Force Base, and Maine Maritime Academy, the Outward Bound School as well as “floods of individual volunteers” joined the effort. These volunteers were a diverse group, which included white collar office workers and experienced woodsmen (Decoster, 1965).
The coordination and cooperation in response to this fire was due in no small part to the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission (About the NFFPC, n.d.). This commission was established by the United States Congress in 1949 and was originally composed of Maine and six other New England States (Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact, n.d.). Governor John H. Reed attributed this act to an idea that was first conceived of by New England Governors in response to the great forest fires of 1947.(Decoster, 1965)
Several agencies collaborated with the Forest Service to control the Centerville Forest Fire. Robert Wright of the St. Regis Paper Company joined the effort as a sector boss on the fire lines. His efforts enlisted the Maine Central Rail Road Company’s assistance in transporting firefighters. (Cleaves, 1995)
The Washington County branch of US Civil Defense supported the effort by setting up a mobile feeding station to provide meals to firefighters. The unit was staffed by Mrs. Sara Wilson, the Washington County Home Demonstration Agent. Lodging was also handled by Civil Defense which provided cots and blankets. (Decoster, 1965)
Other agencies joined the effort by supporting the firefighting operation with services and supplies. The State Police cooperated in the requirements of moving permits, escorting heavy equipment and blocking roads leading to the fire. The Maine Highway Commission provided $15,000 in free services and forestry companies provided heavy equipment free of charge (Decoster, 1965).
Fire fighters created a 34 mile long perimeter free of combustible materials called a “fire line.” Fire lines help to contain fires by creating a gap that a fire must jump across in order to spread. Along the perimeter men suppressed the fire with pumps, tank trucks, and hose . Building the fire line required the use of bulldozers and other heavy machinery, which proved difficult to transport across the uneven terrain. Centerville is known not just for bogs but also large boulders and steep ledge, all of which posed challenge to moving heavy equipment (Decoster, 1965).
Five different airplanes were employed to control the Centerville Forest fire. Canadian Casos planes with 940 gallon drop tanks flew in from Quebec and were used to drop water on the fire from above. Two small “Beaver” float planes with 125 gallon tanks were used to douse spot fires caused by windblown embers. If these little second fires had grown out of control the firefighting effort could have been considerably bigger and more costly. (Decoster, 1965). The participation of Canadian pilots and planes preceded the membership of Quebec in the North Eastern Forest Fire Compact (About the NFFPC: History n.d.).
By the end of the 4th day, August 7th, the Organized Towns involved in the effort were running out of spare equipment and city fire departments began contributing their own supplies to the effort. This was the turning point where firefighters began to gain the upper hand. The fire’s once rapid spread had begun to slow as it started spreading into wetter areas. On August 8th crews had completely enclosed the area with fire lines and by the next day the fire was under control. From August 9th onward the weather cooled and the risk of the fire reigniting was low due to fog and precipitation. On Friday, August 13th, demobilization began. Mopping up after the fire was a lengthy process, lasting well into September. Forest Rangers and 14 men continued to patrol the area for weeks and the last smoke was reported on October 3rd. (Decoster, 1965)
In the aftermath of the fire a board of review was assembled by the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission. The board’s purpose was summed up in a statement by Ed Peltier of the U.S. Forest Service; “We have to be especially critical on a board of review, comparing human endeavor and human efforts with an ideal, striving to improve the practices.” (Decoster, 1965) A report was prepared by Lester A. DeCoster, the assistant to the information and education supervisor of the Maine Forest Service. The report contained maps, day by day accounts, photographs of the firefighting effort, and transcripts of question and answer sessions with the board and observers.
The effects of the fire were big but no lives were reported lost. Of the more than 12,000 acres burned St. Regis Paper Company lost an estimated 8,000 acres of young spruce-fir forest. The Georgia-Pacific Corporation lost an estimated 2,100 acres of woodland and 70 cords of already harvested wood. Two small hunting camps were destroyed and 25 workers were injured in the fire. Most injuries included abrasions, strained backs, sprains, and injuries due to lack of proper footwear. Only one serious accident occurred when a bulldozer operator was struck by a spring pole, breaking several ribs. (Decoster, 1965).
The timely and large scale response to the Centerville Forest fire owes a great deal to the policies set forth after the great fires of 1947. The effort to control it represented a feat of both interstate and international cooperation as well as a successful application of volunteer and national service. This day, August 4th, 2015, is exactly 50 years after this eventful fire. We should remember the role that service played in responding to the Centerville Forest Fire and ask ourselves what we would have done if we had been there.
About the NFFPC. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from Northeastern Forest Fire Compact: http://www.nffpc.org/html/eng/info/about/5.html
About the NFFPC: History. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact: http://www.nffpc.org/html/eng/info/about/3.html
Agriculture, U. D. (1951). The Home demonstration Agent. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Bastin, E. S., & David, C. A. (1909). Peat Deposits of Maine. Retrieved 07 31, 2015, from USGS Publications Warehouse: http://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/0376/report.pdf
Cleaves, H. (1995, September 4th). Mainers remember the great fire of ’65; Centerville blaze destroyed 12,000 acres. Bangor Daily News, p. 5.
Climate Change Indicators in the United States; Wildfires. (2015, June). Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from EPA.gov: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/ecosystems/wildfires.html
Decoster, L. A. (1965). The Centerville Forest Fire Board of Review. Augusta, Maine: Maine Forest Service.
Hoey, D. (2015, May 07). Wildfire burning across 200 acres in Lubec. Portland Press Herald.
Killelea, E. F. (2012, October 7th). ‘The week that Maine burned’. Portland Press Herald.
Network, T. C. (2014, July 28th). Corps Responding to Wildfires, Floods, and More. Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from TheCorpsNetwork.org: https://www.corpsnetwork.org/corps-responding-wildfires-floods-and-more
Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from Ballotpedia: http://ballotpedia.org/Northeastern_Forest_Fire_Protection_Compact
Novey, L. (2015, June 25th). The Corps Network Blog. Retrieved 07 29th, 2015, from TheCopsNetwork.org: https://www.corpsnetwork.org/blog/65
Park, A. N. (n.d.). Fire of 1947. Retrieved July 29th, 2015, from National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/acad/learn/historyculture/upload/Fireof1947.pdf
This post written and prepared by Dylan Cookson: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator
Contributions to the article made by:
- Krista Rogers: MCC Community Leader and Environmental Steward Program Coordinator: editing and proofreading
- Photos taken from: The Centerville Forest Fire Board of Review. Augusta, Maine: Maine Forest Service.