The largest, most destructive fires in the history of the State of Maine were in 1866 and 1947. The July 1866 fire destroyed the city of Portland, Maine. Starting on July 4, the fire quickly got out of control and, as documented in reports at the time, swept through the entire city, leaving tremendous destruction and personal losses. As reported contemporaneously with the events, which lasted through the fifth, when the destruction was complete and total:
“The fire has completely swept through the city destroying everything in its track so completely that the lines of the streets can hardly be traced for a space of one and a half miles long by a quarter mile wide. many buildings perhaps 50, were blown up to check the flames, but the inhabitants could scarcely more than flee with their families to the upper part of the city, saving as many goods as they could carry. . . Half of the city is destroyed, and that half includes nearly all the business portion excepting the heavy business in Commercial street. All of the banks and newspaper offices are burned; but three establishments, wholesale dry good store, several churches, the telegraph offices, nearly all the stationery stores and a majority of business places are destroyed.”
These reports, published in an Iowa newspaper, ended with the apocryphal observation: “It is almost impossible to tell where the people lived, the ruin and destruction is so complete.” What came to be known as “the Great Fire of Portland, Maine” was the most destructive such event in the nation’s history, up to that time.
The second major fire in the state occurred on October 17, 1947, affecting the town of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. A summation by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service (URL link provided below) concludes that the cause of that fire remains unknown, but that the scale of destruction was enormous:
“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.”
The fire, which would not be considered extinguished until November 14, destroyed, as noted in the Department of the Interior report, much of the region:
“In all, some 17,188 acres burned. More than 10,000 acres were in Acadia National Park. Property damage exceeded $23 million dollars. Considering the magnitude of the fire, loss of human life had been minimal. An elderly man returned to his home to save his cat and was never seen alive again. A car accident claimed the lives of an air force officer and a local teenage girl. A man and woman, already ill, succumbed to heart attacks. An unknown number of animals died in the blaze, but park rangers believe that most outran the fire and found safety in ponds and lakes.”
Among the damage was the destruction of 67 “seasonal estates” and another 170 homes as well as “five large historic hotels.” In her 1978 nonfiction account of the fire, Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, author Joyce Butler noted that the socioeconomic distinctions on Mount Desert Island provided for vastly different perspectives on the human costs of the fire. As Butler described the reactions of locals:
“Everyone’s first concern was for ‘the small home owner, the permanent resident of Bar Harbor. People seemed to feel that the loss to the owners of fabulous mansions was a financial one, and one that they could probably bear, but to ‘the little fellow,’ everything he had saved, everything he had, everything he had created was gone in the fire. [But these people] appeared to be more disconsolate over the destruction of the mansions than over their own personal loss. For it was on these mansions and the commerce that resulted from their being there that the so-called little fellow depended for his livelihood.”
As far as the environmental impact of these fires is concerned, the Department of the Interior description of the effects of the 1947 fire pretty much sums up the situation:
“Nature, however, played the predominant role in the island’s restoration. The forests that exist today regrew naturally. Wind carried seeds back into burned areas, and some deciduous trees regenerated by stump sprouts or suckers. Today’s forest, however, is often different than what grew before the fire. Spruce and fir that reigned before the fire have given way to sun-loving trees, such as birch and aspen. But these deciduous trees are short-lived. As they grow and begin to shade out the forest floor, they provide a nursery for the shade-loving spruce and fir that may eventually reclaim the territory.”
The environmental impact of the 1866 fire, besides the obvious contamination to water and air to which the population was subjected, was, similar to the later fire, a product of the scale of development existing at that time. Maine, of course, is a heavily forested region, and deforestation that occurs as a result of human settlement is heavily compounded by the destruction wrought by the fire. Trees that have been growing for hundreds of years are suddenly gone, and with it the environmental attributes they provided as well as the raw materials for further human habitation. In both instances, the dryness of the season – the 1947 fire was helped along by the fact that the region had been experiencing a serious drought – made the margin of error for humanity dangerously thin, and it is believed that the 1866 fire, occurring as it did on Independence Day, was caused by the firing off of fireworks.