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‘Wow, we could really burn down this place’: Lessons from the Great Miramichi Fire of 1825

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A forest fire that plagued New Brunswick nearly 200 years ago may be long forgotten, but for one Canadian historian, its magnitude and relevance are more significant than ever.

With Europe burning and wildfire seasons around the world getting hotter and more intense, there are lessons to be learned from the Great Miramichi Fire of Oct. 7, 1825, according to Alan MacEachern, an environment and climate history professor at Western University in London, Ont.

“In terms of impact, the Miramichi Fire is really unprecedented,” says MacEachern. “The Miramichi Fire is usually the first fire listed in lists of historic forest fires. It was the first one that really got people’s attention in North America. It made them think, ‘Wow, we could really burn down this place.’”

MacEachern, who grew up on Prince Edward Island, is the author of the 2020 book, “The Miramichi Fire: A History.” He called the Great Miramichi Fire “the largest forest fire on the eastern seaboard that’s been recorded,” and one of the largest in North America’s history.

“It was agreed to by everyone of the generation immediately after that it took about 6,000 square miles, which was about one fifth of New Brunswick,” says MacEachern.

The fire burned through Newcastle, Douglastown, Napan, Moorefield, and Black River Bridge.

Records suggest 160 people died, but MacEachern says hundreds more likely perished as bodies were continuously found the following year and not added to the official death toll. Those who survived the fire immersed themselves in nearby rivers and marshes.

While an exact cause was never determined, MacEachern believes several factors came together to make the fire a catastrophic event.

“One of them was the fact that nine years earlier, there was this massive volcano in Indonesia that had cooled down the planet quite a bit,” he said.

The eruption of the Tombora Volcano in 1815 led to what would become known in 1816 as “The Year Without a Summer.

“As a result, you have fewer forest fires in the late 1810s and early 1820s because everything is cooler and wetter,” says MacEachern. “Then, 1825 is by all accounts maybe the hottest summer [and] hottest year of the 19th century in eastern North America.”

By then, several settlers who had arrived in the area lacked much, if any experience, with forest fires.

“They were coming from places like Scotland and Ireland which had hardly any trees left,” says MacEachern. “So when the fire was happening in New Brunswick, they couldn’t really imagine what its size might be.”

THE EVOLUTION OF MITIGATION

MacEachern says the Great Miramichi Fire of 1825 changed opinions about the potential of massive forest fires in North America.

“After the Miramichi Fire, you start seeing some initiatives to make sure people are doing things like keeping barrels of water or ladders near their house so they could go up and pour water on their roof to keep it from burning,” says MacEachern.

It took several more years, and another devastating forest fire – Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire in 1871 -- for strategies to be developed across the continent.

One of New Brunswick’s first efforts was the development of “watch cabins” perched atop towers and mountains across the province. The fire cabin at the top of Mount Carleton, the Maritimes’ highest mountain, was built in 1923 and still stands. It was staffed from May to October for 45 years until aerial fire surveillance took over.

Roger Collet, a wildfire prevention officer with the province of New Brunswick, says weather and forest conditions determine when patrolling aircraft fly to detect fires.

“We’ll run across the province with one aircraft in an afternoon,” says Collet. “Say we have a dry lightning event go through the province. We’ll take a fly out a day, maybe two days later, and see if any of those have started any fires.”

MacEachern says early wildfire strategies across Canada followed the mantra of extinguishing every single fire, which proved to be difficult and expensive.

“Ultimately, I think we figured out by the 21st century, it doesn’t even make ecological sense,” he says. “Forests need fires sometimes. If you keep trying to put out little fires you end up with a great big fire.”

In his study of the Great Miramichi Fire, MacEachern makes a link between what residents of eastern Canada thought then and what they may be thinking now.

“People sometimes don’t notice what is happening right around them,” says MacEachern. “That was certainly true in the Miramichi in 1825. There was a kind of feeling these disasters were happening elsewhere, they were happening in the distance, and we didn’t have to worry about them here. Certainly they were surprised to discover how quickly nature could bear down on them.”

“’Not in my backyard’ is not a really good attitude to have in 2022.”

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