Bar Harbor, Maine
Wildfires don’t occur in October – or at least we think. The 2022 wildfire that burned near Vancouver, Washington began in October. It was in mid October, 1947 when the Bar Harbor fire department received a phone call notifying them of smoke coming from a nearby cranberry bog. That little fire eventually wiped out nearly all of the mansions that lined “Millionaire’s Row,” nine towns, and half of the Arcadia National Park. Little fires can have enormous consequences.
Bar Harbor, Maine was a favorite summer getaway for the rich and famous in the late 1800s. The heat of the city was easy to escape when you had enough money. Some wealthy families decamped to Hudson River Valley, others to the Maine coastline. A row of magnificent houses lined the shores of Frenchman Bay near Bar Harbor, including the homes belonging to families with names you’ve probably heard of: Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, Astor, Dupont. Grand, expansive hotels joined the magnificent homes creating a summer destination spot that rivaled Newport, Rhode Island.
Much like the Pacific Northwest’s weather of 2022, that year Maine had a very wet spring but by mid-July, the weather completely reversed. The area suffered a terrible parched summer. While great for summer activities, this caused plentiful new vegetation which promptly died in the dry, hot summer. Leaves fell prematurely, littering the ground and leaving ground-level vegetation bone dry. In the first three days, the little fire near the cranberry bog burned just 169 acres. But small fires rapidly become infernos once winds kick up, and kick they did. A windstorm arrived and within three hours, the fire traveled six miles and grew to 2,000 acres heading directly towards Bar Harbor. Shifting winds made fighting the fire extremely difficult. The fire had become an inferno.
In much the same way, the fire just north of Camas and east of Vancouver, dubbed the Nakia Creek Fire, began as a small fire on Larch Mountain on October 9, 2022. It smoldered at around 156 acres for a week until the winds kicked up. The fire grew rapidly to almost 2,000 acres within a matter of a few hours and was headed directly towards an area populated with luxury homes. The winds were so fierce that firefighters could not fight the fire from the air, making battling the blaze very difficult in the rugged terrain. Having experienced the Eagle Creek Fire which had scorched the Columbia River Gorge just a few years prior, dumping ashes on flat surfaces as far away as Camas and Battle Ground, residents were justifiably worried. Wind can carry those burning embers a long way.
Winds were carrying the fire in multiple directions. In Bar Harbor, winds were pushing the fire closer and closer to town. With roads blocked by fire, over 400 people took to the sea, evacuated by volunteer fishermen. Finally a bulldozer was able to clear a path on a road, enabling a caravan of 700 cars to flee the area. But in its path, the fire consumed five hotels, 67 magnificent mansions, and 170 residential homes. Bar Harbor’s fire was just one fire that consumed Maine that month. The fire jumped around to eventually consume over 850 homes and almost 400 cottages.
The devastation to the residents, businesses, and economy was staggering. Bar Harbor itself was forever altered as a result of the fire. Most of the grand houses that once graced its shores were not rebuilt. The evergreen forest that once filled the area gave way to deciduous trees, grown from seeds that blew in on the wind or sprouted up from old stumps. The benefit over 75 years later being glorious fall colors that arrive from the birch and aspens that fill the park now. The residential homes were the biggest loss – as their losses cause more trauma and personal devastation than the loss of one’s “summer home.” The destruction of the homes on Millionaire’s Row is more a loss felt by someone who appreciates architecture and craftsmanship, now lost forever to the ashes of time.
Even once the rains arrived towards the end of October in Bar Harbor, stubborn underground hot spots remained and the fire was not declared completely out until November 14, 1947, almost a full month after it began. Similarly, the Nakia Creek fire began on October 9, 2022 and was not declared 100% contained until October 31. Although it is believed the Nakia Creek fire was human-caused, the Bar Harbor fire’s cause was never determined.
The residents around the Nakia Creek Fire were lucky. The winds died down at just the right time to allow firefighters to get in and gain some ground containing it. The homes in harm’s way were no longer in the evacuation zone, and people were allowed to return to their homes relatively quickly. But it all could have gone downhill very easily. Sometimes luck is on your side. And sometimes, like the residents of Bar Harbor would say, it isn’t.
Surprising stories can be found in the most surprising places. Never assume that a small town can’t tell big stories. That is just one reason we love visiting small, local museums and hearing stories from local guides. There are wonderful stories to hear, if you head out and explore…