It has been roughly 190 years since this massive forest fire and it is still Canada's largest fire ever recorded. And yes most Canadians – including a fire chief in New Brunswick – have little to no knowledge of it. The people I asked, even after I explained the event replied “Ohhhh, you mean those heritage commercials with people hanging off logs”.
I've got to stop talking to people.
October 7th 1825 a fire had sprung up, even today they are not sure where the fire started exactly since many small fires are said to be blamed, in Belledune presumeably in the morning hours and it may have killed twenty people.
It then meandered down the Miramichi River, jumping sides as it went setting both sides of the river on fire, and down into Nashwaak Valley which is in Frederickton. The fire that didn't follow the river headed to Richibucto.
The dry, rainless summer season, the blowing winds and the wealth of wood all contributed to the fires spread – which was burning at an astonishing rate of one mile per minute. When all was said and done, one fifth of New Brunswick was burned. A gigantic triangle of a province was destroyed in less than a day, from Belledune to Richibuctio to Frederickton. An estimated one to two million hectares. That's a lot of space.
During the nineteenth century New Brunswick had a healthy Irish population that exploded during the 1815s. A goodly portion of them were potato farmers, in fact, a commonly heard statement is that when people went back to their burnt out farms to retrieve potatoes to eat, as everything else was burned, they found the potatoes had been cooked from the fire whilst still in the ground.
In 1824 New Brunswick had a population of 74.176 people. The bulk of them in the cities but the outlaying areas were populated with farms, crops and domesticated stock. Not the mention small villages, work camps and lumber camps as well.
The death toll varies depending on the source most commonly seen was one hundred and sixty souls. But digging through old articles I noticed that number was reported specifically for Newcastle and areas.
There is not only frequent mention of up to 3000 lumberjacks that were camping in the areas of the fire, but also mention of many people who drowned in the river. A reasonable estimate of life lost is three hundred.
Over six hundred buildings were lost and eight hundred and seventy-five cattle s well.
Those who survived the fire often spoke as if it was a time marker with statements such as “I moved here four years after the fire” or “I came two years before the fire”. It became a very localized event, as even the name of this disaster shows. It should be called New Brunswicks Great Fire, or the Fire of Canada and USA ... but Miramichi area was hit hardest so Great Miramichi Fire it is.
This fire also crossed the border into Maine, USA and caused casualties, damage to property and burned parts of Maine. This article focuses on the Canadian portion of the fire and all statistics regarding it are Canadian as well.
Where There is Smoke
The entire summer and into October of that year had been warm and dry, very little rain fell at all. The town of Chatham on the south side of the Miramichi River was built thirty years prior and the town of Newcastle on its northside was said to be a rising star with upwards of four hundred and fifty resident dwellings. They were thriving due to lumber mainly.
Over the years more settlements and businesses popped up outside of the towns and dotted the Miramichi River landscape. Everything in town, and out of town, was built of wood. Farms, houses, businesses, churches and silos. Where the land had been cleared there was either crops or cattle on it.
On October 7, 1825 around noon was an older woods man named James Wright beating on a drum warning of approaching fire, they called him an old scaremonger and ignored him.
Near or just after three o'clock in the afternoon, the first columns of smoke were seen from Newcastle, they were noted and ignored. It was at a considerable distance to the northwest of them, there were no flames in sight and likely an approaching thunderstorm, it was nothing to worry about.
By seven o'clock people were fleeing for their very lives. The fire was officially a firestorm, and it took less than three hours to burn down the town of Newcastle. One thousand homeless, two hundred and fourty-eight buildings gone only twelve were left standing. The fire kept moving along.
It blazed through Douglastown burning it to the ground in under an hour, only six of seventy buildings remained and costing many lives, the fire kept going and kept destroying everything in its path including Moorefield, Napan and Black River Bridge which lost sixty people. All along the river the settlements on mainly the north side burned. Chatham, Doaktown and Nelson, on the southside of the Miramichi River, all escaped the wrath of the fire.
"In evening the breeze smartened and all at once ashes and cinders showered down and almost suffocated those outside their homes. An hour later a loud roaring was heard and the falling ashes darkened he area and nothing could be seen. Then the wind blew a hurricane and the roaring noise became tremendous. Flames burst in masses from darkness and then the whole sky was illuminated by an immense sheet of fire that in a moment enveloped Newcastle and Douglstown. Within three minutes from first appearance of flames most of the houses in that area were on fire.”
By the time Newcastle and surrounding area was burning the entire north west area of New Brunswick was already burnt and the fire showed no signs of letting up.
"Frantic animals crashed out of the forest and ran along beside them and overhead the wind roared like thunder … Elizabeth tripped and fell a dozen times before she reached the outskirts of Newcastle. Choking haze took her breath away, for her the smoke was so dense she couldn't see a dozen feet ahead; the fences were her only guide and even some of them were on fire … Terror-stricken Elizabeth joined crowds in mad dash to marshes above town. The river was lashed to fury by the gale, and those who had tried, too late , to get away in canoes were tossed about like chips in a millrace, while many were drowned”
As the fire progressed, remember it was following or travelling along the Miramichi River, many ships desperately trying to weigh anchor or struggling with sails in high winds found themselves either aflame or becoming covered in hot ash and embers and soon to be aflame, fled to the southside of the River in hopes of escaping – some did and some did not.
The fire was now on the southside, it had also jumped on its own at narrow portions of the river. The village of Bushville along with a number of other nearby communities were quickly aflame and the houses, crops, and forests were burning as fiercely there as it was on the northside.
From These are the Maritimes came an apt description of this night
"The night became a hell on earth. The screams of the burned, mingled with cries of domestic animals, was terrifying. Men helped sick and aged, women ran with infants in their arms, as all tried to reach the river. The majority plunged in up to their necks but others got into boats or canoes, on rafts or floating logs, and drifted with the current.”
While people tried to escape the fire by submerging themselves up to their neck mostly in the Miramichi River, many of the domesticated animals refused to enter the waters, but the wild animals had no such compunction and sat in the River amongst the people – bears, deer, raccoon and even moose.
Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas wrote that
"Any poor soul who was caught in the forest and could not reach the Miramichi River in time, was doomed to death."
The fire made it all the way to Fredericton and even passing into Maine, United States. In Fredericton about seventy houses burned but it was said of the fire there:
"the forests south of Fredericton a continuous roar like thunder could be heard. This was shortly followed by the rise of a thick column of smoke, and the outburst of a series of extraordinary explosions. Giant tongues of flame shot up to heaven, as if a volcanic eruption was in progress. Spouts of fire rained down on tree-tops, ran up and down the trunks, and kindled he branches. All along the banks of the St. John River, rows of huge trees, centuries old, caught fire, and made the water beside them crimson with their reflection ... Panic seized the unhappy people of Fredericton, as the hurricane force winds began wrenching up burning trees and boughs and hurling them through the air.”
And even once the fire passed, the nightmare was not over. When the fire was raging it was hot and the cold river waters helped protect people. But when the fire passed and the people emerged from the river alive and wet, into the chilly October night, more than a few suffered the effects of exposure, in some cases groups of people were huddled around still burning wood or buildings.
But help would come. right?
It was 1825 and there was no such thing as Red Cross, Salvation Army or any kind of relief assistance. In the days that followed people survived off the potatoes in the ground that were already cooked, some moved away to start over or stay with family, some tried to rebuild but the damage was too extensive – lumber gone, seeds gone, supplies gones, clothing, home, animals and tools all gone.
In the weeks and months even after the fire, people without family to help started to slowly starve to death and or develop issues related to malnutrition and starvation which turned into death. And perhaps the most cruel aspect of this fire ... winter was coming, a good ole fashioned Canadian minus twenty degrees celsius winter and no one was prepared.
Tales of Tragedy
When speaking about any tragedy of large proportions there are always the human interest stories. This one is no different. The tales of human suffering are immense.
A black woman being held in the Newcastle Jail for the murder of her daughter cried out for help but had burned in the cells with other prisoners before anyone could get them out. Newcastle it has been said was aflame in minutes and gone in less than three hours. Their prison was made of stone and basically in the midst of the fire would have been an oven cooking the prisoner alive.
A man from Bushville who thought St. Paul's Church would burn ran out to see if he could help. When it did not burn, he returned home. Sadly, his home and family were gone. St. Paul's Church was in an area that did burn but the church was the only building that did not.
Another story tells of two brothers who saw the flames coming and ran into the woods thinking they would be safe there. Their bodies were found together the next day hugging each other. A similar one is of two brothers running to the woods and half submerging themselves into a small creek bed, they died ultimately as only one half of them burned.
Another story tells of a questionable father who left his children behind while he went out to loot, they were incredibly poor. He returned to dead children. But had lots of loot.
At the time of the fire New Brunswick was in the midst of an epidemic of typhoid fever and many people died in their beds to sick to get up. Tales of people trying to coax their animals into the water, failing and dying either in an attempt to force it in the water or as the creature went mad.
One women is said to have given birth in the River (sometimes with a moose beside her), her daughters name is Mira.
How The Firestorm Works
Earlier in the article I referred to this forest fire as a firestorm. I was not being dramatic with words ... it truly was a firestorm. Unfortunately the only information we have to go off of, is the accounts of survivors and newspapers.
It quite likely started as a forest fire but grew to such strength and intensity that it not only creates its own wind system but also sustains it. It is the one defining characteristic of this natural phenomenon we call firestorms – hurricane like winds coming from all directions.
"...The wind blew a violent hurricane from the northwest and brought with it from Douglastown and Newcastle and the surrounding country, such immense clouds of flames and ashes that it became extremely difficult to retain any position or to breathe". Description Miramichi Fire of 1825 Published in the Union Advocate
These types of fires also rarely if ever start with one fire that grew big, all observed firestorms have been either man-made (hiroshima) or natural ones formed by the merging of a number of fires. A last clue that this was likely a firestorm was the ash, some accounts indicate that there was a lot of it.
"The master of a sloop that traded along Northumberland Strait, between the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island coasts, reported that, while he was running before the gale, the heavy fall of ashes and cinders caused the sea to hiss and boil around his deck, while the smoke on his deck was so heavy and thick as to affect both his sight and hearing". From Redcoat Sailor by R. S. Lambert
As all this air is warmed by the fire, it rises or updrafts and a strong inward directed wind grows around the fire – more fuel to feed the firestorm – but it also prevents spreading of the fire by wind. Of which it is generating plenty of as well.
A fact I found rather fascinating was Canada houses ten percent of the world's forests. And for each year over the last twenty-five years eight thousand and three hundred forest fires have happened. The Miramichi fire was well over one hundred and fifty years ago. That's over a million fires in one hundred and fifty years, and none grew to the size of this one.