'Watching the fire bow and scrape'

William Dill ’51 describes firefighting in Richmond in this edited excerpt from a letter to his parents in Edgeworth, Pa., dated Oct. 24, 1947:

The dormitory is in a general state of stupor tonight. Last night almost all of us volunteered for fire-fighting duties. From suppertime on the fellows were vigorously discussing whether or not to answer the appeals which were periodically being made by the radio stations. Many left during the evening to report to firehouses for assignment, and at about 11 o’clock almost all the rest of us decided to go. We were driven down to the fire station and after we signed in we piled into a comfortable bus.

There were about 40 of us on the bus. They sent us to Richmond, a small town on the Kennebec River due east from Lewiston. At 2:30 Thursday afternoon a tree had fallen across a high-tension power line and the resulting sparks ignited a pile of leaves. From 4 o’clock until about 8 o’clock, high and shifting wind whipped the flames towards Richmond itself. We arrived about 1 a.m. and split up into small groups. I paired myself with Dick Westphal ’51, and when they asked for 10 fellows to start fighting the fire, we climbed into the truck.

They stationed us in pairs along a narrow road with instructions to stop the fire when it reached us. That was no way to break in a couple of sleepy recruits, because we could see the fire lapping up the large pines and firs in tremendous bursts of flame. It didn’t look very encouraging, particularly since Dick and I had to meet it as it came through the woods rather than across the field. We didn’t have to do anything though, except stop a drunk from emptying his pump. The wind died — or shifted — for it was breezy all night long, and a group of firemen attacked the fire directly and got it under control before it reached us.

At quarter past 2 a.m. Dick and I stopped at the farmhouse headquarters for sandwiches and doughnuts. Then we climbed aboard the truck again and drove along the main road. We could see where the fire had already passed: gaunt chimneys and smoldering foundations of completely burned houses. When we got our first chance to fight the fires, we dragged our stirrup pumps about a quarter mile across a field to put out an amphitheater of flaming trees and brush. My stirrup pump didn’t work, so I donated water to another fellow and went after the fire with a handful of brush.

It was spectacular to watch at night: a tree suddenly bursting into flame, a cloud of red and black smoke rising from a desolate blackness, and a stump burning like a candle. But a helpless feeling, too, was inspired by watching the fire bow and scrape to the whims of the wind. The ease with which things caught fire was almost unbelievable.

At daybreak three of us and a French boy from Lewiston worked on another fire. We worked steadily with the Frenchie and a group of local volunteers, riding from fire to fire on one of the tank trucks. The Red Cross caught up with us about 7 and offered sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee. We spent the next three hours picking fires at random, spending most of the time on a big ground fire in the woods. Most of the fires didn’t spread from tree top to tree top, but spread from leaf to leaf and bush to bush, burning through trees at the base and occasionally blazing up to engulf a small spruce fir. To fill our stirrup pumps, we had to walk a quarter-mile through thick woods.

Just before 10 the representatives of Bates were dead on their feet, and when a fresh crew arrived on the scene we took our leave. The bus to bring us back had picked the boys up earlier in the morning, so we hitchhiked back to college.

Despite a night at Richmond, the disastrous results of the fires still seem unbelievable. It isn’t a sudden catastrophe with huge losses of life, but it is a relentless destruction which is sapping the state of its tourist trade and some of its lumber resources without considering the towns it had leveled. It is something the residents will feel for a long time.