Fire Escape

Acadia-Fire

One writer’s earliest childhood memory: fleeing the blaze that forever changed Bar Harbor.

By Lance Tapley
Acadia-June-2016-Cover

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During my childhood, I had a recurring nightmare: I kept sliding into something dark, burning, oppressive — claustrophobic like a tomb, alive like a furnace. I tried to cry out but couldn’t. As an adult, I came to realize that the dream was born of a real-life nightmare: the events of Thursday, October 23, 1947 — my first vivid memory.

I’d just turned 3 years old. That afternoon, I was playing in the front yard of our green-and-white house in downtown Bar Harbor. Strange, smelly, gray clouds billowed overhead. “The forest fire,” my mother told me.

The firehouse nearby blew its harsh whistle, and I remember my mother saying, in a serious tone, that we had to go to the athletic field.

With a suitcase in one hand and my hand in her other, she walked me through the village to the field, where a crowd had gathered. My grandmother and grandfather were there — he in his wheelchair. The sky behind the field was red.

It got dark, and my mother said we had to move to the town pier. People started walking en masse down Main Street. My grandmother pushed my grandfather’s wheelchair. Later, when I saw photos of World War II refugees in their long dark coats, clutching suitcases and children, I thought that was how we must have looked.

People, cars, trucks, and buses filled the parking lot alongside the brightly lit pier. My mother said we’d be getting on one of the boats bobbing in the darkness of the harbor. Looking back at the island, I saw lines of fire stretching across the mountains.

Then something changed, and my mother said we’d be going on a bus to Bangor. I don’t recall how my grandparents got out of town. I do remember that, as our bus left Bar Harbor in a caravan of vehicles, I saw men with shovels standing beside the road. “Your father is out there,” my mother said, “fighting the fire.”

Then came the moments of terror, when the tops of tall trees on both sides of the road were suddenly ablaze, pieces of fire falling all around the bus. I twisted from my mother’s lap and squeezed under the seat to hide from the sight.

My next memory is waking up in bed, with my mother, at a friend’s home in Bangor. We were among more than 2,000 people evacuated from Bar Harbor that day, most in that caravan of some 700 vehicles. It was a day that dramatically changed the town, MDI, and Acadia National Park. Gale winds and an exceptionally dry fall — a combination that caused other big fires around the state — created a firestorm out of a stubborn blaze that had started six days earlier from an unknown cause in the island’s northeast corner. The Mount Desert Island Fire eventually consumed around 18,000 acres, including 9,000 in the park. It stopped only when it had burned its way to the sea.

The fire destroyed hundreds of buildings, though the main blaze missed most of Bar Harbor’s business district, and firefighters blocked offshoots from entering the heart of town. We got out because an Army bulldozer cleared a path for the caravan through debris on Route 3. Had the fire borne down directly on the village, I might not be around to tell the story. High winds slowed the water departure, although some 400 people did escape by boat.

Dwellings that were devoured included scores of never-to-be-rebuilt mansions and five of the grand hotels that had established Bar Harbor as a celebrated destination of the leisure class. In the 1950s, the rebuilt Bar Harbor became a tourist town, with motels replacing the grand hotels. The National Park Service and the Rockefellers hired crews to clean up the woods, but as my pals and I roamed the carriage roads as kids, we were surrounded by land clotted with raspberry brambles and tangles of young poplar and birch, all succeeding the burned spruce and fir. It made it tough to walk to a trout stream with a fishing rod, but the park was still a wonderland for us. The fire even provided playgrounds full of ghosts: the ruins of an old estate on Hamilton Hill, overlooking the village, included a tiled swimming pool with portholes on the sides, where spectators once watched swimmers from an underground room.

The year-round residents of the town’s outskirts rebuilt their homes. The obliterated Jackson Lab came back bigger and better. The ravaged section of the park — much of the island’s eastern half — is now full of beautiful, 70-year-old trees. Such is human and natural resilience. My nightmare persisted into adolescence, but like the town and the forest’s regeneration, new growth within me sprung up and covered it over.

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

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Lance Tapley

Lance Tapley is a freelance writer who led the citizens’ initiative campaign in the 1970s that created the state preserve encompassing the Bigelow Mountain Range.