When one hears the word ‘wildfire’ it typically refers to tragic events that commonly occur in California. The routinely dry conditions, which give the state some of the most desirable weather in the country, also leave it vulnerable to fires. The largest wildfire, in August 2020, burned more than one million acres of land in six counties and destroyed 935 structures. In comparison the entirety of the Cape Cod National Seashore is 43,607 acres.
Despite it not being as serious a threat to the Cape as hurricanes and blizzards are, wildfires have occurred more often than you would think. The worst fire in Cape Cod history happened over seventy-five years ago and this is the story of the perfect storm that led to it.
The seeds of the worst forest fire in Cape Cod history were sown beginning eighteen months prior. The Great Atlantic Hurricane struck New England on September 15, 1944 with heavy rain and strong winds. Needless to say the winds toppled countless trees. By the time the spring of 1946 arrived there were still plenty of those dead trees lying where they fell.
The late-winter and early-spring of 1946 were particularly dry. The threat of potential wildfires was so high that in March State Deputy Fire Warden Ormand Dottridge Jr. warned residents of what could happen. Regulations were put into place for burning leaves and people were implored to be careful and not start anything they couldn't finish.
Watch-tower service and forest fire patrols were put into service. Despite this there were small fires that began breaking out in late March. These were a precursor of what was to come.
Early on April 19, 1946 fire broke out in Sandwich in the area near the Bourne Bridge. Northwest winds gusting up to 35mph combined with the relatively dry conditions were a terrible combination. The fire pushed south and east through the Shawme-Crowell State Forest and toward Camp Edwards(Otis AFB).
|The Bourne Bridge, near where the fire originated.|
Firefighters temporarily got the fire in check by building several backfires a mile from Sandwich center. This was only brief though and by 9pm on April 20th a 15-square mile area of Sandwich and Mashpee was burning or charred. Governor Maurice Tobin closed all public forest land in Southeastern Massachusetts. He also went to the Cape to help direct operations. There was still a few days before a chance of rain and the situation was extremely serious.
|Barnstable County Brush Breaker c.1942(CapeCodFD.com)|
Sandwich, Bourne, and West Barnstable were temporarily left without power as fire scorched the wires. The fire jumped across Route 130 and seemed to be on a collision course with West Barnstable and possibly Hyannis. More than 3,000 firefighters came from fifty-two different communities and worked nonstop building backfires, digging trenches, and working the fire hoses. They were led by John Stokes, the state commissioner of public safety, who left Boston to help. The group set up headquarters the East Sandwich Grange Hall on Old County Road.
At midday on April 21st the fire could be seen and smelled in Hyannis. It was only six miles west of the airport. The State Police barracks in South Yarmouth expressed their concern if the winds did not subside. The flames got to within a quarter-mile of forty homes in Sandwich. Much of Rt. 130 and parts of Route 6A(then Old Kings Highway) were closed to all but fire vehicles. Trains from Boston to Hyannis were diverted to Woods Hole with passengers then being shuttled by bus the rest of the way.
Late in the afternoon of April 22nd the blaze had finally been contained. What turned the tide was the firefighters burning a 1,000-foot wide hollow square around the fire.
When all was said and done authorities estimated 30-35,000 acres of Cape Cod land had burned, though the official number is likely closer to 15,000. More than twenty-five structures were lost and over one hundred people had been evacuated from their homes. The fire traveled a total of 8 ½ miles east from the Bourne Bridge. The price tag of damage was said to be more than $1 million($14.74 million in 2022). It took another 24-48 hours to fully extinguish the fire. In the immediate aftermath it was described as the worst forest fire in Massachusetts history.
The worst part of the entire ordeal was the fact that these fires appeared to have been deliberately set. They were a series of small fires that came together to wreak havoc on the Upper Cape.
On April 26th two Falmouth men, Theodore Andrade and Ruby Antone, were arrested in connection with the fires. Local authorities said that up to twelve fires had been set and that they thought there were more than two people responsible. The two men claimed that they had spotted one of the fires and had stopped to try to put it out.
The dry weather did not subside and less than two weeks later two more massive fires broke out. The fires that occurred on May 7th centered in Yarmouth and West Barnstable ended up destroying 8,000 more acres. Unbelievably officials believed these fires to be deliberately set as well.
In October 1946 Andrade and Antone faced a Grand Jury for their possible roles in the fires. Before they even went to trial they were found guilty for receiving stolen goods and sentenced to six months in jail. That charge was later overturned and the Grand Jury dismissed the charges pertaining to the fires. No other suspects were ever arrested.
The most devastating forest fire on Cape Cod was actually captured on film. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for the filming and it is broken up into two parts on YouTube. You can see the terrible damage caused and also the tireless work of the brave firefighters who fought to put it out.
Previous Blog Posts: