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CAPE COD BRUSH BREAKERS 

"A pictorial history of the unique forest firefighting apparatus"
First Edition January 2001 - Re-launched January 2022 - Page Updated January 10, 2022


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03 - FIRES PAGE
03 - FIRES PAGE
03 - FIRES PAGE
 
 
 
1780 - Upper Cape Forest Fire - 25,000 acres "The Dark Day"
1900 - Sept 12-15 - Carver-Plymouth "Great Fire"
1907 - Upper Cape Fire - Seen from Onset
1923 - May 30 - Pocasset Forest Fire - 7 days - 25,000 acres
1937 - Spring - Bourne-Plymouth Forest Fire - 300 acres - Herring Pond
1937 - April 27 - Forest Fire Sandwich - 3 Firemen Killed / Route 130 Memorial
1937 - May 4 - Forest Fire Plymouth - Pine Hills area - 2 Firemen Killed, others burned
1937 - May 4 - Other Plymouth Fires - Island Pond & Summer St - 700 men fought fires
1937 - May 5 - Hyannis - Forest Fire Ridgewood Ave 2000 acres (Burned up 1937 Breaker)
1957 - May 8 - Carver-Plymouth-Myles Standish - 15,000 acres
1957 - May 8 - Mashpee Plane Crash Forest Fire Hay Road
1964 - May 23 - South Carver - Large Forest Fire
1964 - May 25 - South Carver-Wareham - 5,500 acres
1965 - May 1 - Otis-Sandwich Forest Fire - Jumped Route 6
1971 - May 15 - Plymouth - Myles Standish - 165 acres - 2 fore trucks burned
1986 - March - Otis Forest Fire - Large fire
1986 - April 19 - Otis Forest Fire - Wood Road
1988 - April 22 - Otis Forest Fire - PAVE PAWS 2000 acres
1991 - Plymouth 1200 acres
1995 - May 8 - Plymouth Bourne Road area - 95 acres, homes threatened
2005 - April 18 - Plymouth Forest Fire Clark Estates  30 acres
2005 - April 20 - Barnstable Mary Dunn Road fire
2007 - April 1 - Nantucket - Large brush fire - Mutual aid from Cape
 
The story of the Cape Cod Brush Breakers begins with an understanding of the land and its unique forest fire history.

      Cape Cod, also known as Barnstable County, is a bent arm shaped peninsula protruding approximately 70 miles into the ocean off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. The land was created thousands of years ago by the retreat of glacial ice, which deposited clay, rocks, boulders, and a mostly sandy soil. Huge chunks of ice that melted formed many of the ponds, lakes, and rivers found across the area. The coastline is pocketed with many salt water harbors and bays, and numerous marshlands and wetland bogs. Inland areas, some with considerable hills, were covered by vast acres of evergreen pitch pine tree forests.

      Just "off Cape" on the mainland side are similar lands within what is known as Plymouth and Bristol counties. To the south of the Cape are the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket that also share similar natural conditions as the Cape.

      Strong, warm, southwesterly winds in the spring and into the fall tended to dry the forests making them as explosive as tinder when a fire started. The wind driven forest fires would frequently burn thousands of acres of forest unchecked year after year.

      Native "Indians" who lived in the area would cultivate their land and protect their settlements by "firing the woods" seasonally to reduce the undergrowth and thereby effectively manage to keep the larger fires from their lands.

      After the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and with the eventual inhabitation of the lands by more and more people, areas of forests were cut down to create farm lands and to build homes. Harvested wood heated homes and even enabled industry to flourish in the area.

      Inhabitants throughout history frequently faced many wild fires that threatened their lands, homes, and businesses. Fires that grew to thousands of acres would burn for days, creating billowing clouds of heavy, dark, choking smoke that filled the sky. Wind driven fires were nearly impossible to stop and frequently burned until weather changed or the fire reached a natural break such as water.

      In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fire towers were erected on high grounds so that spotters could observe and report incipient fires. During the 1920s fire patrol trucks worked in conjunction with fire towers to spot and attempt to quickly extinguish wildland fires even before some fire departments were organized.

      As motorize vehicles became more powerful and available in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond, a variety of fire apparatus designed specifically to address the dangerous forest fires were built.

      Forestry studies in the early 1920s found that the explosive nature of forest fires in southeastern Massachusetts rivaled conditions in California and other areas where fires rapidly outrun efforts to contain them.

      Many major fires over the years have claimed thousands of acres of wildland, numerous structures, and have claimed a number of lives.

      Brush Breakers are not utilized in other parts of the country the way they are here. Topography of the land and other factors make them useful here and over the decades they have been used to contain and control many fires which otherwise would have grown much larger and caused much more of a threat to lives and property.

      During the larger forest fires, brush breakers working in groups work to surround and contain the fires so they can be extinguished using water carried by the brush breakers. Tankers, or tenders as they may be called, position on dirt roads or other safe spots to resupply the brush breakers as they make trip after trip back into the fire until it is controlled.

      Over the years, fire tower spotters would observe smoke as fires began. Two or more towers would utilize compass lines and maps to cross up a general area of where the fire is located (way before GPS was even imagined). This information was then relayed via phone or radio to crews that would respond to the fire. A system of mutual aid was developed to manage the large fires that could quickly exceed the ability of one or two trucks to handle. Radio communications and basic incident command systems were utilized, again long before the formalized incident command systems and communications systems we consider standard today.
 


August 1907 photo from Onset bay of a Cape Cod forest fire.

 

    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.

     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.

     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 on Cape Cod and in the southeastern part of
Massachusetts was severe, particularly in the spring. Thousands of acres of forest
were burned yearly. The 1920's and 1930's saw many major fires which led to the need for
a better way of fighting them. As trucks became available and reliable, the
concept of the brush breaker was born.


A bi-plane can be seen against the plume of smoke at this Cape forest fire.
The plane may have been observing conditions from above.

 


The 1920's brought attention to the forest fire problem at the state level.
Research into ways to prevent and combat fires, included manned fire patrol trucks,
fire roads, and fire prevention measures.


Pine forests in the spring are explosive fuel.


As fires increase in size, the length of the side (flank) fire increases. A sudden change in wind
speed or direction can turn low burning side fire into a dangerous crowning headfire


Pine trees can explode as a headfire rages through the forest, up hills and across valleys.


Without a way to get to these fires while they are still small, fires would grow to thousands of
acres in a short time. Fires of huge magnitude are not extinguishable... the just run out of
fuel or go out as weather conditions determine.


Fires threaten power lines, homes, barns, and local villages. It was not unusual for fires to burns for days,
from one side of the Cape to the other.

 


The invention of the brush breaker enabled men to quickly reach fires, either by fire access roads, or by driving
cross country through brush and forested land as necessary to reach and attack fires with water carried on the
brush breaker. Teams of brush breakers working together could quickly surround and extinguish many fires
before the grew large.


Fast moving fires were very dangerous.

 

 

  There have been many major forest fires over the years. Scenes such is this were common across the Cape and in Plymouth County each year with many of these fires burning hundreds or thousands of acres. The 1930s saw a number of particularly bad fires, including the April 1937 fire that came out of the military reservation into Sandwich which took the lives of 3 firemen. A bi-plane can be seen in this photo, perhaps it was providing information on the size and direction of the fire.

April 19-23, 1946 a large forest fire burned some 15,000 acres over an 8-1/2 mile path from the Cape Cod Canal near the Bourne Bridge into East Sandwich. The fire burned over several days and brought help from fire departments all over Massachusetts. A recently found State Forest Fire movie documents the fire, and how brush breakers and fire apparatus battled the blaze.
 

 

CARVER FIRE - 1964

The fire tower spotted a fire starting up in the Farm-to-Market Road area of South Carver on Monday May 25, 1964 at about 1"00 PM near where a large fire had been fought two days earlier. Just 3 minutes later, another fire was spotted in the Suther's Marsh Road area off Federal Furnace Road. Eight brush breakers from Carver and Plymouth responded to the Suther's Marsh Road fire. Apparatus from Myles Standish and Wareham responded to the South Carver fire. The Suther's Marsh fire was controlled in about 2 hours, but the South Carver fire continued to gain much headway and grew much larger. It moved east toward Charge Pond Road and Camp Cachalot at Five Mile Pond and Little Long Pond. The fire then jumped the Agawam River and burned on to White Island Pond. The Plymouth Fire Chief Arthur Lamb chose to take a stand at White Island Pond to block the north end of the fire and at Shangi-La Shores near Glen Charlie Road to the south. When all was said and done, over 1,000 firemen from Plymouth and Barnstable Counties battled the fires in gusty 30 mile per hour winds and tinder dry conditions. The fire burned 5,500 acres and destroyed approximately 30 cottages.

SANDWICH FIRE - 1965

It was 75 degrees on May 1, 1965. Winds were gusting to 35 mph from the southwest. At 12:54 PM, the Bourne fire tower reported a brush fire near Forestdale Road and Pocasset Road on the military reservation. Within minutes the fire was already growing rapidly and the fire tower reported the fire looks "real bad." Brush breakers from several towns were called in desperation as fire chiefs recognized the extremely dangerous combination of heat, wind, and dry conditions. Twenty minutes later the fire patrol plane advised that the fire had already burned 40 to 50 acres and was moving rapidly towards Sandwich. Even with mutual aid coming from across southeastern Massachusetts, the huge fire burned thousands of acres on its way to jumping the Mid-Cape highway at 2:20 PM and continuing to burn down into Sandwich village before being controlled.

Approximately 2,000 acres burned around the PAVE PAWS radar installation at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (Otis ANGB) on April 22, 1988. Flames 60'-100' in the air were observed as the fire raged through the northern end of the base. Mutual aid came from two counties to fight the fire. The photo was taken from the County Patrol Plane P-18.

 

  

APRIL 27, 1938

One of the worst forest fires in the history of Cape Cod was on April 27, 1938 in Sandwich. A fire that started in the National Guard camp at Camp Edwards grew quickly, eventually burning an area 12 miles long and 5 miles wide into the Shawme Crowell State Forest. Several firemen would become trapped by the fire and suffered severe burns. Three of them, Thomas Adams, Ervin Draper, and Gordon King, died from their injuries making this one of the worst fires in Cape history.
     A simple memorial is maintained by the State Forest Fire folks in a small park off Route 130 in Sandwich near where the men perished.

     

A TRIBUTE

By the People of Barnstable County
to
THOMAS ADAMS
ERVIN A. DRABER
GORDON KING
Who were trapped, burned, and died
fighting a forest fire April 27, 1938
Their supreme sacrifice should inspire
all of us to strive for the goal
they sought - the preservation
of our forests and wild life.
 

 

PLYMOUTH FIRES

This map is on the wall in the District 2 headquarters at Myles Standish State Forest.
It shows some of the major fires that have burned in the Plymouth / Carver area.

 

Some of the fires in the Plymouth History:
 

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

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.

Spring 1937
     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.

1991
     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.
        
    
 


 
Painting in the Myles Standish headquarters.

 

 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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