'A mile-long chain of flame'

Robert Foster ’50 wrote this first-person account, “Volunteers fight forest blaze; Kennebunk crew is one of many,” for The Bates Student of Oct. 29, 1947:

“Where the hell do you think you’re go’n — to a fire?”

Such was the shout of one bystander as our “special” bus aglow with red and yellow headlights careened southward through the outskirts of Portland last Friday morning.

Under the leadership of Brenton Dodge and Bert Knight, the 24 of us were on our way to the Kennebunk area, where another detachment of Bates men had battled one of the state’s largest forest fires throughout Thursday night.

Outside of Portland we could see smoke curling halfway round the horizon. We sped into this gray cloud at Biddeford, and beyond were patches of scorched woodland all along the roadside.

The town of Kennebunk, headquarters for fire-fighting operations in the area, was quiet and tense. A loudspeaker was mounted in an upstairs window of the fire station. Hollow-eyed townsmen milled among the water trucks in the street. In a nearby alley stood a trailer loaded with furniture.

A group of us were soon whisked away in a dump truck to a farm outside of town where fire was crackling in the dry underbrush. Our afternoon was spent kindling backfires along the steep side of a gulch half a mile inside the forest.

Filling and refilling our hand water tanks from the brook along which we worked, we managed to control our side of the blaze as sizzling flame leaped up the wooded hillside to meet the larger fire beyond.

It was some time after dark when we had completed the job and climbed out of the sooty tangle to observe our handiwork. A mile-long chain of flame cast a cherry glow into the sky. Every now and then a tall pine would roar and belch great swirls of sparks higher than we could see in the smoke.

Cars brought sandwiches and coffee from Kennebunk as we sprayed down a blaze which had eaten through the underbrush from behind the backfire. Among us now were men from Bowdoin and the University of New Hampshire and a young boy who said he had run away from his home in Sanford to fight the fire.

A fire engine backed down a narrow dirt road to give us water, then groaned off into the night in response to a call a few miles up the highway where a new blaze had burst out.

When out fire was under control we patrolled the area with a hand light and water tanks for an hour or so before we were recalled to the highway to await our relief. It was cold, and a farmer invited us into his house, which stood unharmed twenty yards from the edge of the charred region. He told us of flames leaping fifty feet across a corn field in the high winds of the night before.

Beef broth was served to us in the Unitarian Church by ladies who hadn’t stopped working for 36 hours.

By early morning a heavy blanket of fog had rolled in to combine with the already dense smoke screen which enveloped Kennebunk. We couldn’t see two feet ahead on the road as we walked back to the fire station.

With the news that everything was at least temporarily under control a few hours after dawn, our bus wheeled onto the highway again for the journey back to college. We had completed one of the many firefighting missions sent out by the college.