Fires could be a great friend or foe to early settlers. This one, with a magnitude and intensity like few others, was no friend.
October 7, 1825, began as every other day along the Miramichi River in northeastern New Brunswick that fall-hot, dry and sunny-just as it had been that summer. But by about noon the air became thick, and "a pale sickly mist, lightly tinged with purple, emerged from the forest and settled over it." Soon, a large dark cloud replaced it and a tremendous column of smoke could be seen rising above vast tracts of white pine and red spruce into the sky northwest of Newcastle, blotting out the sun. The wind carried the pungent smell of wood smoke into the town. This was no ordinary forest fire.
By mid-afternoon the heat had become unbearably oppressive, weakening many residents and reducing them to a stupor. By suppertime flames could be seen through the smoke. Showers of flaming branches, burnt leaves, ash and cinders began to fall in the town's streets. Yet the population was unaware of just how massive a fire they faced-but that was about to change.
Shortly after 9 p.m., "a succession of loud and appalling roars thundered through the woods." Suddenly flames raced along the north bank of the Miramichi and into Newcastle and Douglastown. Within three minutes, most of Newcastle's buildings were on fire.
Those who could ran for the safety of the river, screaming in pain or panic. Many didn't make it. Several suffocated as they slept or awoke only to be turned into human torches as they tried to flee the flames. Prisoners in the town's jail perished in their padlocked cells.
Those who made it to the river huddled up to their necks in chilly water, shivering throughout the night. Hundreds of frantic animals, domestic and wild, joined them, seeking the same shelter. Herds of cattle stood with only their heads above the water. At one spot, a bear sat among some cows until the danger passed, then calmly sauntered off without harming any of them. The bear was lucky; much of the wildlife in the region perished.
The fire caused 160 deaths in Newcastle. Only a damaged handful of Newcastle's 260 houses and shops remained among the blackened chimneys. Virtually all the survivors among the town's 1,000 citizens were rendered instantly homeless.
The fire raged beyond Newcastle, jumping the Miramichi River sometimes from ship to ship, setting them on fire and burning three. At Douglastown, the fire burned 64 of the town's 70 buildings. On the south side of the river, it destroyed villages such as Bushville, Napan and Black River, where more people perished. Fortunately, it spared Chatham and Nelson; their residents took in about 500 refugees from the north side of the river.
When the fire finally burned itself out a day and a half later, the Miramichi region had been devastated. It destroyed about one-fifth of New Brunswick's forests, almost 16,000 square kilometres stretching from Newcastle up the Southwest Miramichi River and down the Nashwaak to Fredericton, as far north as the Bartibog and the Northwest Miramichi Rivers and as far south as the Richibucto. Some estimates say as many as 300 people lost their lives. The flames destroyed more than 500 houses and buildings, killed nearly 900 head of cattle plus hundreds of other domestic and wild animals, and burned crops stored in barns.
The numbed survivors stumbled through the blackened and charred still-smoldering ruins of their homes, searching for family members. Among the few things to eat were potatoes left in the ground, where the heat of the fire had roasted them, and the charred bodies of moose, deer and bears.
The effects of the blaze were felt far away. A ship's captain plying his trade between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island reported "the heavy fall of ashes and cinders caused the sea to hiss and boil." People saw warm cinders fall in the streets of Halifax, and the wind carried smoking embers across the water as far away as Newfoundland.
To put the Miramichi fire into perspective, the forest fires that ravaged British Columbia in August and September 2003 burned approximately 200,000 hectares. By comparison, the New Brunswick fire of 1825 is estimated to have burned more than eight times as much, perhaps 1,620,000 hectares, making it the largest fire ever recorded in the Maritimes and the biggest wildfire ever identified in North America.
Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, Sir Howard Douglas, shocked at the devastation, launched appeals for help. People in England, the rest of Canada and the United States donated £40,000 to help the victims, against losses estimated at more than £250,000-not including the value of timber on Crown lands. The great forests of the Miramichi normally accounted for nearly one-half of all the colony's exports, and the fire had wiped out huge tracts of "the best lumbering region of the province."
Miraculously, the citizens of Newcastle and Douglastown rebuilt their towns within the year. Perhaps even more startling, the province's timber industry was booming again by the 1830s. For as devastating as the fire was, the lumbermen, the settlers and the forests were a resilient lot.
How did it happen?
The summer of 1825 was unusually hot and dry. There had scarcely been any rain since late July, wells had dried up, rivers ran low and for weeks temperatures reached 30ºC in the shade. Spruce budworm infestations had left the treetops tinder dry, and highly flammable debris from widespread logging operations covered the forest floor. At the time, when loggers felled a tree, they immediately debarked, trimmed and squared it, leaving as much as one-third of the tree lying on the ground.
In isolated clearings, colonists burned stumps and brush close to the forest, the usual way to clear land. They normally kept open fires going, both indoors and out, and accidental fires were common. In short, ripe conditions existed for forest fires, and they soon came.
Today it's thought that the Great Fire of 1825 consisted of a series of perhaps five or six large, separate blazes, driven together in several places by the wind.