July 19 – 25, 2019Vol. 21, No. 7

The Week Maine Burned

by Martha F. Barkley

Everyone around the globe was updated and informed about the famous Bar Harbor fire, but few heard the rest of the story: towns in southern Maine completely devoured by fast flames like the recent Paradise, CA disaster and southern coastal resorts destroyed so very dreadfully fast that people fled for their lives to the freezing ocean and wet sands on the beaches.

What a story, but who remembers that extra wet spring like what we just had in 2019, followed by drought conditions in August-October? Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, non-fiction by Joyce Butler was published thirty years after the disaster in intricate detail. Facts like the lady who was baking blueberry muffins when she smelled smoke and heard "the freight train sound" of the descending firestorm through the tops of trees.

The Stars are Fire is a novel by Anita Shreve that shares the family turmoil on the southern coast of Maine during the drought and tragic losses of homes right beside the ocean. I am particularly pleased that this lesser known part of Maine history is explored in this novel rather than the very well known Bar Harbor loss.

Our Belgrade Library book discussion went on and on from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. about these two books on the same subject: the week that Maine burned. We had so many revelations in the novel as well as the documentary type history. That only 15 people lost their lives throughout this horror was quickly pointed out by Claudia. What a miracle, but, of course, many, many injuries, undocumented. The novel dealt with fire injury. A husband who was thought to be dead or missing returned home months after a long coma released him from his misery with scarred face and crippling conditions.

Cece commented on the world renowned lab in Bar Harbor. Who knew of this gem of science for cancer research and the mice lost for further experimentation? Science labs around the globe had shared with Bar Harbor, so the basic research was not lost, thank goodness. Clean up by shoveling mice remains out the broken windows made the volume of loss even more concrete and real in its terrible vastness.

Happy endings for novels was pitched by Martha, another one (not me!), who teaches college age students. The novel has a twist at the end that I just found troubling, but maybe you, dear reader, prefer happy endings. Music is such an important part of this story and I simply was enraptured by the writing of novelist Anita Shreve about expressive piano playing and also buying a record player for the family to enjoy music in their home. Sounds like our home, full of music.

The very amazing facts of so many volunteers around Maine that you saw very few real fire fighters in their protective garb. Self reliance of every community and all the college and university age students who were right out there to help. Kay commented on the Bowdoin students who fought the fire so very long on one side of Route 1, that they were found the next morning, exhausted and sleeping on the other side of the road where they had BUILT fires to keep warm!

Barbara and others helped select these two books for us this summer and Loyce brought her huge book of Maine maps to help locate the communities and ponds in the history. The China fire was the closest to Belgrade, maybe even one of the notorious "set fires." My first edition of Wildfire Loose had a terrific map in the front of the southern fires and up the coast to Kennebunk and the back flap of my library book had the Bar Harbor fire locations.

It was clear to me by these two maps that Bar Harbor lost a third of the historic resort to this calamity while the more complete devastation was in the south with over seven towns completely destroyed. Everything gone, from farmhouses and barns and animals to main street Victorian homes and businesses. One town destroyed bragged later that they only stopped mail delivery for one day! How did these resilient people do it?

As Joyce Butler so carefully documents, everyone pitched in, everyone. While the men all went to volunteer as firefighters, the women were busily making sandwich after sandwich after bowl of stew or chowder for the exhausted men. Some women even delivered coffee and food to firefighters trapped inside of dangerous smoke filled, windy areas. The wind played such a role in the fire's movements and the dryness of ground level "slash" created a torrential wind from within the devouring flames.

I found the definition of slash in the helpful vocabulary list at the end of the history. With high winds from a storm not too long before 1947, the woods were full of fallen branches and trees. Drought brought all this slash to dangerous, known levels. New Hampshire closed its woods to hunters before Maine did, and some fires still occurred in New Hampshire. Poverty Pond, now on the map as Silver Pond, experienced complete fire damage in Maine not far from the N.H. border...three of us at book group hunted for this one on the map! Our next book for August is The Library Book, another fire story about the Los Angeles Public Library's burning in 1986.

I also recommend The Man from Maine by Edward Bok who tells very descriptively about Cyrus Curtis as a young lad experiencing the Portland fire of 1866. Curtis later developed The Ladies Home Journal which found its way into almost every home in the USA. Edward Bok's Pulitzer was written later, The Americanization of Edward Bok, a great biographical read about a Dutch boy who became a prosperous American. He also knew how to write!

I found these wonderful Bok books at the Waterville Library, such a beauty of an old building restored and also a prize-winning public library just across the street from the laundromat.

(Augusta finally became fire control central pretty much after the citizens of Maine brought it under control that horrid week. Out-of-state equipment and help from everywhere starting pouring in, so our capital city coordinated all the generosity of Americans everywhere.)