New Brunswick

The Great Miramichi Fire may be the biggest forest fire ever, but few have heard of it

A hot, dry summer. New settlers not familiar with the dangers of forest fires. Thick forests full of tall pine trees. It's believed a combination of those things were part of the cause of what is known as the Great Miramichi Fire on Oct. 7, 1825. 

Fire burned for a day and a half destroying one-fifth of the province's forests.

Over one-fifth of New Brunswick's forests were destroyed in the Great Miramichi Fire on Oct. 7, 1825. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

A hot, dry summer. New settlers not familiar with the dangers of forest fires. Thick forests full of tall pine trees. It's believed a combination of those things were part of the cause of what is known as the Great Miramichi Fire on Oct. 7, 1825. 

It is 195 years since the massive forest fire burned 1,620,000 hectares or 16,000 square kilometres, one-fifth of New Brunswick's forests, making it the largest fire ever recorded in the Maritimes and the biggest wildfire ever identified in North America.

It destroyed much of the town of Newcastle and Douglastown and jumped the Miramichi River to Chatham Head, destroying the villages of  Bushville, Napan and Black River.

Nelson and Chatham were spared and that's where many of the survivors took refuge as they tried to rebuild. 

In Newcastle, 160 died and only a handful of houses and businesses survived. It was the same in Douglastown, where only six buildings survived. 

People, their livestock and the local wildlife spent the night in the Miramichi River to protect themselves from the flames. Ships anchored in the river were destroyed.

It's said the fire burned for a day and a half. 

Exaggerated in size

Some historians have questioned the estimates, believing the size of the fire was exaggerated. But in his book, "The Miramichi Fire: A History" Alan MacEachern, a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, argues it really was a huge and disastrous fire, just one that wasn't well reported.

The author first learned of the Miramichi fire about 20 years ago from a book written in 1864. In the book the author called it the worst fire ever seen in North America.

With his interest piqued, MacEachern was surprised there hadn't been much more written about it.

"So that got me going 'Well, if nobody else is going to write about it, maybe I should write about it'." 

The ability to search a huge number of historical databases for material from the 1700s and 1800s was key.

"Also, I was lucky with an event that not only took place on a specific day, but it had a kind of a funny name. Miramichi kind of jumps out at you when you're doing keyword searches."

It was during one of these searches that MacEachern found articles in British newspapers quoting immigrants who had sailed from Scotland to settle in Miramichi, only to find the place was on fire. They sailed back to their homeland and wrote about what they had witnessed.

In the fall of 1825, the forests of the Miramichi were the number one source of timber for the British Empire. 

"It was the richest the Miramichi would be, before and after the fire."

Alan MacEachern was surprised so little had been written about the Great Miramichi Fire. (Submitted by Alan MacEachern )

For MacEachern, trying to figure out why one of the most famous natural disasters of the 19th century in Canada, and one of the largest forest fires ever reported, largely disappeared from the historical record was one of his goals.

"Before my book, I think the longest thing ever written about it was nine pages long." 

Time to remember

But locals like Miramichi historians and writers Shawn McCarthy and Doug Underhill have been doing their part to keep the historical significance of the Great Miramichi Fire alive.

McCarthy, executive director of the Friends of Beaubears Island, which is home to two National Historic Sites, said the group shares the story with visitors to the island. It was home to a thriving shipbuilding and timber business at the time of the fire.

McCarthy said the fire affected the entire Miramichi, all at once,  and could have meant the end of settlement in the region. 

But, the people stayed and rebuilt, against great odds, and McCarthy hopes more can be done to remember the effort it took to do that.

"I'm certainly hoping that in five years time there's a big commemoration of that, because I think this is one of those stories that could have been a real disaster for Miramichi." 

Contemporary report of the Great Miramichi Fire (Submitted by Shawn McCarthy)

Underhill, a former high school teacher, agrees more should be done to highlight the historical significance of the fire. 

"Unfortunately, it probably has been forgotten. It should be, I think, at least more noteworthy. There may be some mini-ceremony on the anniversary date of it and a few things like that.

"But definitely it's part of what has shaped us as an area for sure." 

Underhill likes to share stories of how people survived in the aftermath, with what little was left of their crops, as they tried to rebuild.

In fact, many homes were rebuilt using what lumber they could salvage from the scorched forest. 

"Even after the fire, the pines burned at the top, but you know the majority of the actual tree was still usable and in some older homes around here you might find that the boards are different widths." 

Underhill said the survivors used whatever remained of the local trees. 

"You know, there's some really interesting stories that have come out from that and it's definitely, I think, a big part of our history that should be better known."

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