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A Special Feature

"A pictorial history of the unique forest firefighting apparatus"
By Britton Crosby
First Posted January 2001 - Re-released April 2014
(Updated April 2014)


Page 2
Cape Cod Forest Fire History


On this page
02 - Cape Cod Forest Fires History
                   Forest fires in SE Mass
                   Historical Fires
                   Sandwich FF Memorial



     This photograph dated August 1907 was taken from across the bay in Onset looking towards Cape Cod as a massive forest fire raged across the upper Cape.

     The pine forests of Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts burned often and ferociously throughout history. Dry conditions and strong breezes would take small fires resulting from carelessness or sometimes arson, and turn them into major forest fires that would typically burn unchecked until changes in weather or natural barriers would slow them down.

    Prior to the 1930s and 1940s, the ability to battle fires was limited to what could be done by hand.

    As motor vehicles became more available and powerful, the ability to utilize them for firefighting improved. Early vehicles in the 1910s and 1920s could carry some fire extinguishers, rakes, brooms, and other tools which could help volunteers put out fires.

    In the late 1930s, trucks were built that had larger water tanks and special equipment needed for forest fires. As the years went by and equipment improved, the men who battled these major fires became very skilled at using fire apparatus to get to fires and contain them more often before they could threaten homes or property.




JULY 31, 1909
      A forest fire burning near Cataumet (southern Bourne), Mass.





1780 - THE DARK DAY 
    In 1780, an early morning lightning storm started a fire in the woods. Clouds of dark smoke filled the sky to the west of Sandwich in what was called  "The Dark Day."  It had been for generations, the practice to "fire the woods" each year as the Indians had done, usually in April, to burn off the grass and seedlings.  This practice kept wide stretches of the forest clear of underbrush but did not damage the large standing trees.

1887 - 25,000 ACRES 
     In 1887, a huge forest fire burned over 25,000 acres from the Pocasset section of Bourne to Sandwich.  This fire destroyed approximately 600 cord of stacked wood at the Sandwich Glass Company as well as several stands of oak and pine ready for cutting.  The Glass company was forced to then purchase and burn coal in its furnaces at a substantial financial cost.  This, along with a labor union strike, ultimately contributed to the demise of the Sandwich Glass Company, one of the Cape's largest industrial businesses between 1825 and 1894.

1923 - 25,000 ACRES 
     On May 30,1923 a fire began in the woods in Pocasset village. By the end of the day, it was thought that the fire was out.  By morning however, it picked up again, burning through the day.  Once again, it was believed that it was under control by nightfall, only to flare up again and again for 7 days. An area of approximately 25,000 acres, between Pocasset village, Sagamore, Sandwich, East Sandwich, and South Sandwich was left blackened.

     The State Commissioner of Conservation stated that "something was radically wrong" adding that the fire could have been contained to about 1,000 acres if it had been properly handled since it was not even a "fire day."  Following this fire, the state purchased hundreds of acres of burned over forest in Bourne and Sandwich and created the Shawme State Forest in 1923. The name was changed in 1938 to the Shawme-Crowell State Forest, honoring Lincoln Crowell for his long dedication to the Cape's forests.  Crowell was killed in 1938 when the patrol truck he was in was struck by a train in Brewster.

     "A concerted national fire prevention program (dealing with wildland fires) did not follow, until two experiments in 1928.... The Cape Cod Forest Fire Prevention experiment and the
Southern Forests Education campaign... The Cape Cod program involved 110,000 acres of scrub oak and pitch pine.  The experiment was intended to compare the costs of  prevention and pre-suppression with those of suppression...."   This  statement in "Fire in America" by Stephen J. Pyne c.1982, demonstrates how serious the forest fire situation on the Cape was at that time.  The Smokey the Bear program grew out of these early fire prevention efforts.

     Forest fires can be extremely dangerous, especially when fought by hand.  One of the worst fires ever on Cape Cod struck on April 27, 1938.  A number of fires were burning on the Cape and in Plymouth County, when another fire began in Sandwich  Bourne Deputy Chief Gibbs took a crew of young men, volunteers, with him in to fight the fire west of what is now Route 130 in Sandwich.  40 mile per hour winds fanned the flames and the men were soon trapped by the fire.  All received serious burns.  Three men, Thomas Adams, age 43; Gordon King, age 34, and Ervin Draber, age 28 died that day fighting this forest fire.  A memorial stands today near the site where they died.




      The brush and forest fire problem in southeastern Massachusetts was serious, particularly during the spring fire season. It was not unusual for thousands of acres of forest to burn each year. During the 1920s and 1930s in particular the fires became a major problem. All out efforts were made to determine ways to combat these fires. Fire prevention programs were developed. So were methods of fighting these fires. Out of much of this concern came the development of fire apparatus specifically designed and capable of taking on these fires aggressively with sufficient power, water, and skills to stop them as early as possible. The brush breaker was born. 


      It is not clear whether the bi-plane aircraft in this photograph had a formal observation duty during this particular fire, but the idea of getting above these huge fires to understand what was burning, what direction it was headed, and what was in its way are all valuable pieces of information when battling these types of fires. 




      The forests of the Cape area could be explosive under the right weather conditions. Fires could rapidly develop and burn many acres before even being noticed. Sudden wind changes could turn low burning side fires into a new wide head fire that could put firefighters at great risk. Fires could go from ground fire to the tops of trees as fires crowned. Forward momentum of these crown fires would develop as winds would carry hot embers ahead into unburned areas spreading the fires at great speed.  



      Forest fires can develop tremendous heat that would cause the moisture within trees to suddenly boil causing the trees to explode with a loud noise at the fire consumed them within minutes.  Fires of such intensity are hard to extinguish. There may simply not be enough water to do the job. Many of the larger fires were stopped by changes in weather, or by reaching natural breaks. If conditions were favorable, a group of brush breakers could come in from the rear of the fire and work their way up the side flanks putting the fire out as they move along quickly trying to reach the head of the fire and hopefully surround it, containing it, and stopping its progress.





      Photograph of a forest fire imposing on Hyannis in 1940. Thick brown and gray smoke are signs that a fire is really dangerous and moving rapidly. Fires of this nature that move in on buildings can destroy property and endanger the lives of people and animals. Preventing them from getting large and out of control was the best way to prevent this from happening.






Some of the following information was provided by John Hedge, Plymouth FD Captain (Retired) who had researched area news reports about some of the great Plymouth fires.

1900 - THE GREAT FIRE OF 1900  
     September 12, 1900 - September 15, 1900

     A fire started near Carver and burned to the shores of Cape Cod Bay. Strong gusty winds, the remnants of the great Galveston (Texas) Hurricane fanned the fire as it burned four miles in 30 minutes at one point.  The fire destroyed many structures as well.

     A fire bug was blamed for a large number of fires in Plymouth during the spring and summer of 1937. One fire burned about 300 acres from the Bourne town line to Herring pond.

     On May 4, 1937 a fire started in the Pine Hills near Mast Road.  A sudden change in the wind caused the fire to sweep across Sandwich Road. Two firefighters, James H. Devitt, aged 20 and Herbert R. Benton, aged 38 were trapped on the road and were killed. These are believed to be the first firemen killed in Plymouth. There were many more men on that road at that time who barely escaped, some of whom were badly burned.

      While that fire was burning another fire began on Island Pond Road, and yet another on Summer Street in Plymouth.  With these three large fires burning at the same time, help was called from departments within a 20 mile radius.  Over 700 men fought the fires.

      The following day, another fire began just north of Ponds Road and burned to State Road.  These four fires over two days were more than usually experienced in five years. Other fires were set, but controlled with less damage over the next few days.

     May 8, 1957 15,000 Acres burn in a massive forest fire that burned from Cranberry Road in the Myles Standish forest in Carver to the water in Manomet. The fire which began about 3:00 PM on Wednesday had a 3 mile front within an hour.  A brisk, strong southwesterly wind drove the fire about 12 miles.
     About 30 minutes before the fire began, a Plymouth brush breaker had been sent to battle a fire in Mashpee on the Cape.  This breaker was recalled to fight the fire in the home town of Plymouth.  Apparatus responded to this fire from Framingham to Provincetown according to reports, including apparatus from Falmouth, Harwich, Truro, Onset and Bourne, as well as other Plymouth County departments and all the State apparatus in Southeastern Mass. Soldiers from Otis and prisoners from Plymouth were put to work as were many local and state police officers. Plymouth Fire Chief Everett B. Wood ordered the evacuation of more than 150 people. Approximately 6 cottages were destroyed.  Over 3,000 firefighters battled the fire it is estimated.

     May 23, 1964 - Saturday

     A large fire burned in the South Carver area.

    May 25, 1964 - Monday, Approx 1:00 PM
    The fire tower observed a fire starting up in the Farm-to-Market Road area in South Carver near where the fire burned on the previous Saturday. Just three minutes later, another fire was spotted in the Suther's Marsh Road area off Federal Furnace Road.  Eight breakers from Plymouth and Carver responded into the Suther's Marsh Road fire. Other apparatus from Wareham responded into the Myles Standish fire. The Suther's Marsh fire was controlled in two hours, but the other fire continued to gain headway and was now much larger.  It moved eastward towards Charge Pond and Camp Cachalot at Five Mile Pond and Little Long Pond.  It jumped the Agawam River and moved to White Island Pond.  Chief Arthur Lamb chose to take a stand at White Island Pond to block the north end of the fire and at Shangri-La Shores near Glen Charlie Road to the south. About 1,000 men battled the fire with winds gusting to 30 mph and tinder dry conditions.  About 20 cottages lost. About 5,500 acres burned.

     May 15, 1971

     Seven Plymouth firefighters were burned in a fire that destroyed 165 acres when wind direction changes burned firefighters on two brush breakers. The two damaged vehicles were a 1955 Dodge Power Wagon and a 1968 International. The fire was on the east side of Myles Standish in the Camp Squanto BSA campground.  More than 40 apparatus from Plymouth and Barnstable counties fought the fire.

     About 1,200 acres were burned.

     May 8, 1995

     A fast moving fire whipped by 25 mph winds forced hundreds of residents to flee a fire in the Captains Country and Wind Shores neighborhoods about 1:30 PM quickly destroying 95 acres and threatening more than a hundred homes in the Bourne Road area.  Mutual aid from 18 departments responded.




      This map on the wall inside the State Forest Fire District 2 headquarters at Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth illustrates the big fires that took place over the years in the Plymouth area. Some actually burned over the same areas more than once. 


      These paintings are also in the Myles Standish facility. They show the artist's memory of responding apparatus to forest fires in the forest. 



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