In the 21st century, forest fires are often synonymous with certain areas that are prone to them today. We all know the stories of incompatible blazes in the states of California, Arizona, and Oregon as well as countries like Australia. But just because you don’t live in a scorching desert, doesn’t mean you are safe from wildfires. Some famous blazes have burned farther east, such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed 3.3 miles of the city, killing 300 people and leaving 100,000 homeless.

Even closer to home, though, is the lesser known fire that plagued Maine in October of 1947, “The year that Maine burned.” The year of 1947 started out cool and damp, but this changed by mid-July and at the beginning of October there had been 108 days without significant rainfall.

On Oct. 20, the Portland Press Herald reported that there were 50 small fires burning in Maine. Strong winds would soon worsen the situation. A fire rekindled in North Kennebunkport on Oct. 21 that soon spread toward coastal settlements, forcing the residents to flee to the ocean. Two days later, according to the Forest Service, all hell broke loose.

Hurricane-force winds caused fires in York, Oxford and Hancock counties to flare up into a burning dervish of fire. Families in those areas had to leave their homes at a minute’s notice. One resident who experienced the fire described it as being comparable to the sound of waves crashing on a shore as it passed over the roof of the house.

The raging fire destroyed 75% of homes in Brownfield and moved its way northeast up the Maine coast, where it wreaked havoc on Bar Harbor. Around this time, both Maine Gov. Horace Hilldrith and President Harry Truman declared a state of emergency. Morris Gilley of Bar Harbor said of the fire, “It’s just plain hell.” Everything, he said, was on fire:

“Our big hotels, people’s houses, the big estates — everything’s going up in smoke. You just can’t seem to stop it anywhere. The flames are jumping everywhere. Sometimes they burn down a whole street. All those grand estates between Hull’s Cove and Bar Harbor are just one big ball of fire — 3 miles of it.”

Rain finally fell on Oct. 29, putting a stop to the 15 fires that had been burning across the state. The tally: 220,000 acres of land had been scorched, 16 people killed, 2,500 were left homeless, and $11 million in damages.

In the wake of recent droughts, please remember the year Maine burned, and be careful with fire.

Thank you to for providing the information for this column.