With less than a one-tenth of an inch of rain fallen over the region in the past month, the dangers of a major forest fire are readily apparent. Currently, with no rain on the horizon, the Adirondack forests remain a tinderbox.
On the morning of Memorial Day, it appeared that fire had finally arrived, as a smoky haze covered the region and obscured the distant mountaintops.
Fortunately for the Adirondacks, the smoke and haze were delivered on winds hailing from Quebec, where 52 fires had already burned more than a quarter million acres.
According to news reports, the majority of the fires were burning near La Tuque, Quebec, about 150 miles northwest of Montreal.
It isn't the first time Canadian fires have affected our weather. In 2002, smoke from fires in the Lac St. Jean region of Quebec darkened the sky over Ottawa and Montreal and the smoky haze was evident as far south as Washington, D.C.
The history of forest fires in the Adirondacks is significant, and stretches back a century to the most devastating fires that occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when the fires of 1903 and 1908 consumed nearly a million acres of forested lands.
The Adirondack's primary fire seasons have always been the spring and fall of the year, when there is an abundance of dry leaves, tinder and winds to fan a fire.
I can recall several instances of fighting fires as a teenager, when the pay was meager but the food was always good. It always seemed that youngsters got the worse part of the job and were rarely assigned to the front lines.
Typically, we were used for "mop up detail," which required raking over a burned area to check for coals or an underground fire. We discovered the hot spots by checking for heat with a bare hand, which always brought blisters. We would then dig up the forest duff, spray it with water from an Indian Tank strapped on our back and move on. Firefighting has not advanced much since the 1970's, as the same methods are applied today.
In 1903, a 72-day drought brought on forest fires that scorched more than 600,000 acres of Adirondack lands, centered near Lake Placid. At the time, fires also burned in Schroon Lake, Lake George, Olmstedville, Newcomb, Ausable Forks, Saranac Lake and Clintonville.
The NY Times reported at the time, an estimate of ground burned at more than 1,000,000 acres, or about one-fifth of the entire territory. The fires were so consuming that cinders were reported falling as far away as Albany, 150 miles to the south. Smoke from the fires eventually reached Washington, D.C.
Five years later, in 1908, the Adirondacks experienced the most devastating fires to date as the blazes burned almost continuously for nearly four months across the Park.
By September 1908, both New York City and Quebec City to the north were blanketed in clouds of smoke from fires in Hamilton, Herkimer, St. Lawrence, Franklin, and Essex counties. The smoke was reportedly so thick, that ships were forced to use foghorns in NY Harbor.
By the end of the month, fires had consumed lands from Lake Lila east to Sabbatis and all the way to Horseshoe Station near Tupper Lake. Other fires burned from the vast Bay Pond Park of William Rockefeller all the way to Saranac Lake village, consuming over 150,000 acres of forested land.
The great fires of '08 resulted in new laws to detect and prevent forest fires, that were enacted in 1909. To protect the forests, locomotives could only burn oil from April 15 through Oct. 31 to prevent the sparks that were responsible for so many fires. Loggers were required by law to limb everything left behind and new systems of fire surveillance included the construction of fire towers and state regulated fire patrolmen.
The new legislation also provided the governor with the power to close both public and private forests during times of high fire danger. Despite such efforts, by 1910, nearly one-third of the northern forests had been cut over or consumed by fire. Today less than 10 percent of the Adirondack forest is considered old growth.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at email@example.com