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Environment and Outdoors
A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

Fighting fire with fire: As Maine warms up, prescribed burns become more necessary

When it comes to raging wildfires, Maine is no California. As the most heavily forested state in the country, Maine's climate is wetter. California is warmer and drier. There's more lightning and more wind in the Golden State.

But Maine's changing climate is increasing the possibility of more and bigger fires — and now, like in California, prescribed burns are being used in York County as a fire management tool.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Last year, Maine had more than 1,100 fires, the highest number in 35 years. Most of them were under half an acre in size — nothing like the massive 1825 Mirimichi fire that began in New Brunswick, jumped a river and blackened more than three million acres, including 800,000 in Maine. Or the fires in Oct. 1947, that dominated state and national news.

For months, Maine had experienced record-breaking warm temperatures and drought. Firefighters battled 200 separate fires across the state. In York County alone, flames swept across more than 100,000 acres, entire towns were evacuated and hundreds of homes and businesses were gutted.

The fires burned so furiously that desperate residents raced into the ocean to save themselves.

"And, of course, the scary part? All the rats that were running to get to the ocean. And they came under the blankets with them as they were sitting in the surf," former Kennebunk town historian Stephen Spofford said, describing the scene to public radio station WBUR in Boston.

In addition to the devastation in York County, half of Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor burned, along with the Jackson Laboratory and 68 mansions on Millionaires Row.

When the fires were over, more than 200,000 acres were scorched, nine Maine towns were gone and 2,500 residents were homeless. Remarkably, only 16 people were killed. 1947 came to be known as "the year that Maine burned."

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Brick Store Museum
Wildfires in York County, Maine, October 1947.

"I'm not gonna say we're not going to have those big fires. We're not going to have 1947, but I think we've been pretty lucky so far," says Patty Cormier, director of the Maine Forest Service.

Cormier says before 1947, fires were typically 1,000 acres or larger. But after that, things changed: fire suppression evolved; fire departments were established and fire training became a priority; and, recently, there has been a focus on upgrading an aerial fleet to fight fire from above.

But Cormier says there are some clouds on the horizon.

"We do have an issue with fire departments losing folks and fire departments closing down. So that puts the pressure on the Forest Service, that we become that more wildland firefighter force for more of the state," she says.

Maine is part of a multistate compact for fighting fires, so Cormier says if there's a need for mutual aid from nearby states, it is available.

"The only problem is if we're really dry, they're going to be dry too. But, I worry about it. It's one of those things that keeps me up at night in the spring and summer," she says.

To keep areas susceptible to burning from blowing up, prescribed fires can be used as a preventive measure. And that's what the Nature Conservancy has been doing at the Wells Barren Preserve in York County for more than 30 years.

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Brian Bechard
A controlled burn at Wells Barren Preserve in October.

"The idea is to get good fire on the ground to do restoration for the species and the habitat as well as to protect the community," says John Bailey, a land manager and a burn boss for the Nature Conservancy who says the 367-acre preserve is an unusual, ecological habitat for Maine.

It's a sandplain grassland that's home to 11 state endangered or threatened animals and nine rare plants. It's also considered an important migratory and nesting area for more than 100 species of birds. Bailey says the vegetation is dependent on periodic, low-intensity fire to help it thrive.

"By using the prescribed fire, we're going in and we're cleansing off the ground from built-up fuels," he says. "So that's like leaf litter and needle cast and debris."

A planned, 25-acre controlled burn like this one also provides training for qualified Nature Conservancy staff and volunteers. They use drip torches and lighters to set the fire once they've gone over safety precautions and made certain that weather conditions are just right. Trucks loaded with water are standing by to put out any errant smokes or flames.

"The nice thing about prescribed fire is that it moves slowly. We always want to take our time with fire," says Amanda Mahaffey, a deputy director with the Forest Stewards Guild who is helping out with the fire.

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Susan Sharon
Fire boss John Bailey with the Nature Conservancy at a controlled burn at the Wells Barren Preserve.

Mahaffey says she is hopeful prescribed burns like this one will be used more regularly around the state.

"I think that as we see drier, droughtier conditions and more unpredictable conditions and fuels changing over time, that prescribed fire is one of those tools that we can use to help keep the landscape safe, help keep people safe and help maintain some of the really cool natural areas like we have here at the Wells Barrens," she says.

Three years ago, just north of the preserve, a 315-acre wildfire broke out in a remote, forested area after a property owner left a brush fire unattended. Bailey says it took more than 80 firefighters three days to bring it under control.

"At the end of the day, there were 19 different departments, folks from all over the place. There were dozers and helicopters. It was probably the largest fire I've seen here in my career in southern Maine," he says. "I felt like I was out West again."

No one was injured and no homes were lost but Bailey says it could have been much worse. That's because the forest that burned was full of natural fuels. The area had been under consideration for a prescribed burn but Bailey says it didn't happen in time.