Although no one can say for certain how the first spark ignited, on October 17, 1947, smoke was reported rising from a cranberry bog near Hulls Cove, Me. The blaze evolved into what is often referred to as the Great Maine Fire of 1947.
The destructive inferno burned until approximately November 14, cutting a path from Mount Desert Island to the Biddeford area in York County, and then down into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Small fires in the Northeast during the fall are not that uncommon, but 1947 had been unusually dry. This extreme dryness, combined with 45 mph winds, perpetuated a situation that was quickly out of control.
As described in the American Red Cross Annual Report for 1947, approximately 130 homes were lost in Bar Harbor alone, along with an important cancer laboratory. Year-round residences and local farmers suffered devastating losses of property and livestock.
The fire also changed the demographic face of Bar Harbor, as many wealthy summer home owners never returned or rebuilt their houses. Northern York County in the southern part of the state was the hardest hit. In some cases entire villages were wiped out.
Throughout the affected area, at least 15 people died and several more were injured. In total, 854 homes were destroyed, and property damage was extensive, ranging from $50 million to $100 million. The fires extending into New Hampshire and Massachusetts resulted in four fatalities and 59 homes destroyed.
The Red Cross appropriated $500,000 for immediate relief. The local Red Cross chapter—aided by many volunteers—sheltered, fed and clothed affected families. With the harsh Maine winter approaching, temporary frame housing units were quickly built, and prefabricated houses were provided by the War Assets Administration.
According to a 25-year anniversary article in the Lewiston Daily Sun Journal, the Red Cross fed 10,000 people and housed 2,500 after the disaster. Once spring arrived, more permanent living quarters were constructed. The formal rehabilitation effort lasted until June 1948, and the Red Cross expenditure totaled more than $2.3 million.