Almost every day as we turn on the TV or get the national news via computer or smartphone, we see images of and reports of wildfires devastating someplace. It can be the foothills in Southern California, the mountains in Montana, the outskirts of Phoenix and even Portugal. Summer fires are common in many parts of the world.
In Pennsylvania summer fires are not unheard of, they are just not common. From 1940 to 2010 summer fires in June, July and August account for only 8.7% of the total number of fires and 5.6% of the total acreage from 1960 to 2010. This is according to DCNR’s records.
Summer fires in Pennsylvania are a different kind of animal. The fires are often small and not burning very fast, but they tend to burn hot and into the dry duff. They require digging out. Crews may work for days on a fire that is less than an acre.
Yet large fires can and have happened in the Keystone State. On July 14, 1886, The Forest Republican, of Tionesta reported what they described as “One of the most destructive forest fires that ever visited this section of the country” near Sheffield, Warren County had burned over the lumber camps and peeled bark of the Horton, Crary & Co. Near Brockway in Jefferson County fires were reported “in every direction” during July of 1887. In July of 1894 a fire broke out that threatened the large mill of the Medix Run Lumber Company.
On July 10, 1962, 73 persons including 59 children in 13 families were made homeless when a forest fire, believed started by children playing with matches, bore down on the village of Hawstone near the Mifflin – Juniata County line in the Lewistown Narrows section on the south side of the Juniata River. Twenty-one frame dwellings, along with a church and a mobile home were destroyed. On July 19, 1966, lightning started a forest fire on Piney Mountain in Adams County. The 25 acre blaze required bulldozers to contain.
The summer of 1993 was dry and fires continued to burn through the summer and into the fall. A fire in Laurel Run Borough, Luzerne County began on July 22nd and was not extinguished until August 8th, 18 days later. The fire covered 168 acres.
These are just a few of the thousands of fires that burned during the month of July. Despite the fact that there is now a “Flash Flood Warning” across much of the state as I write this, remember, wildfires can and do burn in the summer.
On March 1, 1911, President Taft signed the Weeks Act into law. The Weeks Act authorized the federal government to create national forests on lands within watersheds of navigable streams or rivers. These new public lands would be used to regulate stream flow and revitalize the forests. They would be under the control of the U.S. Forest Service, but the location had to be agreed upon by federal, state, and local governing bodies. They could not be taken by condemnation, but had to come from a willing seller. This was the act that would allow for the eventual creation of the Allegheny National Forest.
Ninety-three years ago today, on June 7, 1924 the Clark-McNary Act was signed into law by President Coolidge. The federal law allowed the Secretary of Agriculture to cooperate with states for forest fire protection and prevention. It was the beginning of the cooperative arrangements between the states and federal government to share resources. In addition the act strengthened the Weeks Act passed in 1911 to allow the federal government to acquire any lands capable of producing forest products, rather than just headwaters of navigable rivers. This greatly expanded the role of the U.S. Forest Service in the East.
Two years later one of the worst fires to ever strike the ANF would happen at a place called Owls Nest.
It shocks the sensibilities of the modern reader who is used to a twenty-four hour news cycle and video coverage of even minor events, that fires of the magnitude described in The Carbon Advocate on May 15, 1880 was not described in more detail.
Twenty thousand acres have been burned over by forest fires in Pike and Monroe counties.
The acreage burned over was in all probability not a single fire, but probably multiple fires. According to DCNR, Bureau of Forestry records total fire acreage for the entire state has not exceeded 20,000 acres since 1964.
That May destructive forest fires were raging in Indiana County, near the county seat of the same name. During the same month not only forests burned but the boroughs of Milton in Lycoming County, and Coudersport in Potter County, suffered serious fires which destroyed most of the towns. The fires, however, were not a result of wildfires. However the hot dry conditions that caused the flammability of the forests contributed to the desiccation of the wooden structures, allowing them to easily catch fire and burn.
May Fourth – a day when wildfires burned across Pennsylvania with reckless abandon.
The Clearfield’s Raftsman’s Journal, on May 4, 1870 noted:
Within the past week extensive fires have been raging in the forest in various parts of this county, no doubt, destroying much valuable timber. No other damage has been done so far as we know.
The Pittsburg Dispatch, May 4, 1891 reported fires near Erie, as well as in McKean, Elk, and Forest counties. During the first week of May fires burned through the woods and fields of Somerset County, east of Somerset. Thousands of acres were reported to have burned along with houses, barns and fences. At the same time a fire near Scalp Level on the Somerset – Cambria line was burning unchecked because of the dry conditions.
On May 4, 1922 a 2,500 acre fire began on the watershed of the Tipton Water Company in Blair County.
Trains starting fires were a problem that week for the Moshannon District fire crews. More than 500 acres were burned in four separate fires started by trains during the week of May 4, 1951. A fire between Medix Run and Benezette burned over 200 acres and a fire in Covington Township, Clearfield County burned over 100 acres. Smaller fires were also reported along railroad lines in Clearfield and Elk counties.
In the Poconos a fire broke out on May 4, 1951 near Hypsy Gap destroying 300, acres and a fire near Bushkill in Pike County burned over another 200. The fire near Bushkill appeared to be extinguished, but five days later it broke out again.
On South Mountain fire again reared its ugly head on May 4, 1963. Three fires burned an estimated 850 acres. The largest fire was a 600 acre conflagration that burned near Big Flat. The fire jumped the Arendtsville – Shippensburg Road at one point and burned down the mountain. Another fire near Mainsville burned 250 acres of South Mountain and the third fire at the intersection of Ridge Road and the Huntsdale – Pine Grove Road (PA Route 233) burned less than an acre.
And the infamous Two Rock Fire was declared extinguished on May 4, 1990.
One hundred one years ago today one of the most devastating fires to hit the area was experienced.
April 20, 1915 saw another serious fire on South Mountain in Cumberland County. The fire was believed to be intentionally set, and began on the mountain near Huntsdale. Driven by high winds the fire fed on the dry fuels and rapidly spread through the forest. The fire burned to what is now Pine Grove Furnace State Park, causing thousands of dollars’ damage to summer cottages, farm buildings, ice houses and timber.
The large ice house owned by the United Ice and Coal Company, of Harrisburg, located at Laurel Dam contained 17,000 tons of ice. The building was burned away and the ice exposed. Efforts were made to save part of the ice by shipping it away in cars.Three box cars were burned on the siding at the ice house.
A camping party, that was composed of men from Carlisle, was compelled to fight the fire when flames when the fire surrounded their cottage. The members of the party were Postmaster Fisk Goodyear, E. S. Krononberg. M. Blumenthal, Norton Goodyear, Harry McCartney, W. H. Goodyear and I. C. Greenwood, of Carlisle, and George C. Boose, of Philadelphia, and Milton I. Hezberg, of Brooklyn. They had been camping in the mountains at the cottage owned by Mr. McCartney.
The high wind caused the flames to spread through the woods and in several instances the fire fighters were cut off and had difficulty in getting away. Two men, named Bowman and Sowers, who lived in the area, were severely burned when the fire cut off their retreat and they were compelled to run through the flames.
Several homes and summer cottages were burned. As the fire burned over the mountain the summer home of David Cameron, now Kings Gap Environmental Center, was endangered but the fire turned away from the estate.The Mans family took refuge from the fire next to the lake and they were forced to drench themselves with water to survive. They escaped the conflagration with only minor burns.
Hearing of the devastation Dr. G. G. Irwin and George B. Rickabaugh, both of Mount Hollys Springs began to head toward the fire to lend their assistance. Their automobile skidded and overturned on Hunters Run Road. Rickabaugh was pinned in the car for a time and suffered a broken leg. Irwin was thrown from the car and suffered severe cuts and bruises.
The area had been burned over in previous years, and it is almost certain that trees that died or had been injured by the earlier burns remained, providing fuel for the fires that ensued in 1915. The fire was reported to have covered 20,000 acres of state forest reserve and at least 5,000 acres of private land. The villages of Hunters Run and Toland narrowly escaped destruction as did the Holly In and houses on Hill Street in Mount Holly Springs.
The fires were so destructive and threatening that the Wild Life League of Pennsylvania sent a request to Governor Brumbaugh to use “all available resources at the State’s command.” The letter to Governor Brumbaugh said in part: “In almost all the mountain counties and particularly along the rights of way of the various railroads of the State vast areas are being burned over, the small fire-fighting force of the Forestry Department being utterly in adequate to cope with the emergency in an effective way.” They asked the governor to assign the entire force of state police, fish and game protectors and the National Guard to firefighting duty.
The Harrisburg Telegraph, of April 22, 1915, in addition noted details about Governor Brumbaugh seeking help to quell the fires. The Governor was quoted as saying:
“I shall issue a proclamation asking citizens to go to the forests and the men in charge of fighting the fires that are doing so much damage. I have already given instructions for all game and fish wardens to co-operate with the men of the Forestry Department and took pleasure today in approving the Milliron bill, which requires game, fish and forestry wardens to enforce laws pertaining to any of those lines. I regard this as the first step in the conservation department plan which I outlined. That contemplated consolidating the departmental forces. Under existing laws I have authority to detail state police on emergency service and Major Groome will send his men to help fight fires.”
On the evening of April 22, 1915 rain began to fall throughout the state and it was especially helpful in the Cumberland Valley and South Mountain, eventually allowing firefighters to gain control of the fire and extinguish it.
Seventy-five years ago on April 16, 1942 a fire roared through the same area as this past Sunday’s fire.
On April 16, 1942, a large fire, incendiary in origin, broke out “at possibly 20 points almost simultaneously,” on South Mountain in Cumberland County. The fire rapidly covered 1000 acres near Big Flat.The fire complex burned over 2000 acres. Students from Dickinson College, Army troops from the Carlisle Barracks, and students at Mont Alto were used to fight the blazes. The fire crowned at several places and was fed by a strong wind. The fires burned in the vicinity of Big Flat, Tumbling Run, Pigeon Roost, Gray Ridge and Dead Womans Hollow. At one point the hamlet of Wenksville was in danger.
Trout season has traditionally opened on the Saturday closest to April 15th for years. Now there are other opening days – the early regional opener, mentored youth days, and probably more to come, but the traditional opening day is still a “holiday” for many of us. To paraphrase Robert Service, “It’s not so much for the trout that I’m going, as much as just going for trout.”
And traditionally the woods have been dry, and fire danger high. Oh sure most of us can remember fishing in snow or heavy rain but along with trout season comes fire season.
More than a century ago Dr. Rothrock in his 1902 report noted:
I am driven to the conclusion that a very large proportion of our spring forest fires can be distinctly charged to fishermen; for it is beyond dispute the burnings begin when the trout fishing season opens, and their starting point can often be traced directly to the bank of a stream. Most of the fires started by fishermen are done through ignorance or carelessness. The smoker throws his match (still burning) to the ground and passes on. In an hour “the woods are on fire.” The same occurs on roads leading through the forest. Few people recognize. (though most think they do) just how inflammable a bed of leaves is.
On April 15, 1931, the Associated Press put out a release with a Williamsport dateline, “The likelihood that many of them might be drafted to fight forest fires confronted trout fishermen already in the hunting camps in this part of the state ready to whip the streams at dawn tomorrow.”
1971 was another bad year.
On the advice of DER Secretary Maurice Goddard, Governor Shapp signed an order April 15, 1971 which went into effect a 5 p.m. the following day. The order placed a ban on open burning and smoking in and within 200 feet of any woodlands of the Commonwealth. The ban went into effect on the eve of the opening day of trout season, a time of year when thousands would be along the streams and in the forest.
1976 was another spring that lingers in the memories of firefighters in Pennsylvania. On April 15, 1976 a special fire-weather forecast issued a warning for “High forest fire danger over Pennsylvania and New Jersey.” It would be the equivalent of a “red flag day” in today’s vernacular. On April 19, 1976 a primary electric line along State Route 44 near Haneyville on the Clinton – Lycoming County line broke. The sparking line ignited the fine fuels along the road. Driven by 14 mph winds the fire spread rapidly. The area had been devastated during the past few years by oak leaf roller, oak leaf tier, and two lined chestnut borer causing extensive mortality, leaving a large amount of dead standing fuel. At the same time crews in the Tiadaghton District were responding to a fire across Lycoming County near Wallis Run. The Haneyville Fire spread rapidly. The fire required suppression efforts of 18 Forest Fire Wardens, 392 crew members, and 26 State Forest and Park employees. The fire burned 3,330 acres before it was extinguished on April 21. The Wallis Run Fire burned 280 acres before it was extinguished and required 166 firefighters plus men and equipment from five volunteer fire companies. At that time the Haneyville Fire was the largest fire in the history of the six-year-old Department of Environmental Resources.
So go catch some trout, renew old friendships, and be careful out there.
Most wildfires in Pennsylvania can be attributed to debris burning that gets out of control or arson. Lightning is the current rarest form of fire ignition. Pennsylvania forest firefighters can go an entire career and not work a fire started by lightning. Eighty-eight years ago this week two wildfires in Pennsylvania were started by rather unusual causes. On April 9, 1929 the Kane Republican reported an unusual start for a forest fire.
State police stationed in Kane today were asked to aid Forest county authorities in search for dynamiters who blew up an abandoned automobile seven miles this side of Marienville, starting a forest fire. Twenty-five acres of forest land were burned over before a crew of men from Marienville could extinguish the flames. Several buildings were endangered but none were destroyed.
The automobile, a Star sedan was abandoned by the owner, James Walton, of Redcliff, about twenty feet off the General Kane highway the past winter when it became stuck in a snow drift. Tires and other parts of the machine were stolen, and the climax came Sunday when dynamite was placed in the car.
The force of the explosion completely wrecked the car and threw burning brands into the brush starting the forest fire. It is believed that about five sticks of dynamite were used.
Members of the State Forest Service in Marienville rounded up a crew of 27 men who fought the fire.
It was stated at Marienville today that a gang of youths is under suspicion in the case. Forest officials, who are conducting theinvestigation, believe they have learned the motive back of the dynamiting but refused to release any of the details.….
On that same day The Morning Herald of Uniontown reported that firefighters working on a 400 acre blaze came across a moonshiner’s still in the midst of the blaze. The account noted that “none of the finished product was found.”
In the spring of 1917, America was moving toward entering the war that was raging in Europe. Fires in the forests of Pennsylvania were still on the mind of many Pennsylvanian’s though. Quicker response and more fire prevention was needed. A plan was put forward by the Department of Forestry. George Wirt was making arrangements to have mailmen become fire wardens. The idea was, they were out during the day at a time when fires were most likely to begin and if they spotted a fire they were to report it to the nearest fire warden or fire tower.
George Wirt was adept at using the press and sent out press releases and made speeches wherever and whenever he could. Prepared by Wirt, but sent to the press under Commissioner Conklin’s name the press releases reminded people to not burn on dry windy days, use spark arrestors on engines, break matches and make sure the cigarette or cigar is out before discarding it.
…No fire warden system or method of protection can reform the born fool who forgets his fire,” says the commissioner. “His change of heart must come from within. Pure carelessness caused the burning of 160,000 acres of forest last year in Pennsylvania, and over 300,000 acres in 1915….
The press release in its entirety appeared in the McKean Democrat on April 5, 1917. It is interesting in that it appeared on the front page, in the fifth column from the left at the top of the page. In the sixth column was the announcement of President Wilson asking for a declaration of war for the United States to enter into World War I. The column on forestry takes up 95% of the column length (the very bottom of the column is an ad for the sale of two young horses by A. VanSickle of Smethport). Exclusive of the headline which took up 17% of the column, the text relating to what would become known as “The War to End All Wars,” occupied only 56% of the column, followed by a listing of Easter Sunday services in the Methodist Church and a want ad for boys at the Barney–Bond bottle factory in Smethport. In a two column article to the left of the forestry column under a black and white line drawing of the American flag, with the headline of “ATTENTION SONS OF BUCKTAILS!” is a call for the re-formation of the Bucktail Regiment by the sons and grandsons of those who volunteered and fought as the Bucktail Regiment in the Civil War.
Wildland firefighters in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, have used rakes for years. They are sturdy, reliable tools, and when working a forest fire one seldom gives a thought to where they came from, or who invented them.
Charles Howard Rich was born December 31, 1860 to Mr. and Mrs. John Fleming Rich, in Richville (now Woolrich), Clinton County, Pennsylvania. He was the grandson of John Rich who founded the Woolrich Woolen Mills Company. Charles entered Pierce Business College in Philadelphia in 1878, to study business and law, and graduated in 1880. He then enrolled at Allegheny College to study math and civil engineering. Later he studied at Jefferson Medical College, planning to make medicine his career, but failing eyesight caused him to abandon that field.
He returned to Woolrich to practice civil engineering and surveying. Rich opened a lumberyard in Woolrich in 1889. He served Clinton County as an Associate Judge from 1924 to 1930, and for that service he was referred to as “Judge” for the remainder of his life. Judge Rich was extremely active in local affairs including the Kiwanis Club, the Woolrich Boy Scouts, the Masons, the P.O.S. of A, the Woolrich Community Church, the Clinton County Historical Society, and the Clinton County Fish and Game Association. He served as a Fire Warden for 28 years.
He was an inveterate tinkerer and held several patents including a carriage axel oiler, a nut and lock for a carriage spindle, a rotary engine, and his most ubiquitous invention, the Rich Rake. From his patent application:
This invention comprehends the provision of a tool designed for use fighting forest fires or the like, the tool embodying a handle and head to which are secured a plurality of blades, the head being susceptible of adjustment so as to position the blades at various angles with respect to the handle, such as is necessary to permit of use of the tool in the capacity of-a brush cutter, a rake for leaves and brush, a fork or shovel designed to effectively handle burning brands, and to also provide a mulch hoe.
The tool was designed to use 4 blades, comprised of teeth fastened by bolts or rivets to an angle iron channel. The teeth were from hay mowing machines in use at the time. The angle of the head was adjustable. Patent Number 1469957 was granted on October 9, 1923, for the Rich Rake.
Rich also made a patent application on September 11, 1931 for a fire rake with a fixed head rather than the adjustable head. It had four mower teeth on one side, and a scraping blade above the teeth. To utilize the scraping blade the handle was rotated and the mower teeth pointed up. The patent was granted on January 9, 1934 as 1942901. The manufacture of the implements took place in Williamsport until the 1970s.
C.H. Rich’s rakes were in high demand, not only in Pennsylvania but across the country, and probably around the world. In the fall of 1947, Maine was hit with devastating forest fires that were some of the worst in the state’s history. The Rich Rake was a crucial tool as evidenced by an article in the Lock Haven Express on October 27, 1947.
Judge Rich passed away on December 31, 1947 on his 87th birthday. He was survived by his wife, three daughters, a granddaughter and a great grandson.
Wesley L. Greider, of Quarryville, Lancaster County, patented a similar fire tool in 1933. Nothing can be found, other than the patent, of Greider’s invention and it is unknown if it was ever manufactured, or used in Pennsylvania forest fire work.
Today the adjustable head Rich Rake has largely been replaced by the Council Tool Fire Rake. The Council Tool Company was founded in 1886, and it is headquartered in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. From the Council Tool website (http://counciltool.com/), “In the 1930’s, the Forestry Service approached Council Tool about manufacturing tools to fight forest fires. That led to the development of the fire rake. Known throughout the industry as the Council Rake, the product is still offered in our catalog today (Cat no. LW-12).” Council tools are American made.
Unlike the adjustable head Rich Rake (right), the Council Tool Fire Rake has a ring attached to the cross-piece that holds the teeth. A tapered handle, with the thicker end opposite where the firefighter grasps the tool, fits through the ring and keeps the head snug as it is pulled toward the firefighter while raking a line. The unit may be disassembled for storage and transport, a feature that is not readily available on Rich’s invention. The length of the handle is either 60 or 52 inches long. The preferred length in Pennsylvania seems to be the shorter 52 inch handle.
Whether a firefighter is using a Rich Rake or a Council Fire Rake, they are undoubtedly one of the most useful tools on Pennsylvania forest firelines.
Patents – below are pdfs of the patent documents referenced in the blog above
C.H. Rich Adjustable Head Forest Fire Rake – Rich Rake Rich1
Last evening, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Snyder County Conservation District’s annual Awards Banquet. I spoke on the topic of Forest Fires In Pennsylvania.
Snyder County is not known as a particularly problematic area for wildfires. Shade Mountain to the south and Jacks Mountain to the north were large timbering areas more than a century ago. As the primeval forests were cleared, the slash left behind and the coppice burned. Huckleberry bushes sprouted in the ash of the fires and became an important cash crop to the local farmers, and people struggling to make a living on the mountain. The Star-Independent newspaper published in Harrisburg reported on April 16, 1915:
A mountain forest fire started yesterday afternoon on the south side of Shade Mountain, in Heister Valley. Last night the fire had extended over a stretch of several miles and large volumes of smoke are visible in Middleburg. The fire will likely cross to the north side of the mountain during the night.
On April 20, 1915, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported:
Sunbury, Pa., April 20. —Fire raging in the famous Shade Mountain huckleberry district, in Snyder county, it is feared, will destroy the bushes there, where thousands of quarts of the finest huckleberries are picked yearly. It burned all day yesterday.
Journalism in years past was sometimes colorful. From the Shamokin News-Dispatch, of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1932:
Shade Mountain Small Volcano
High Mountain Near Middleburg Scene Of Year’s Most Picturesque Fire
One of the most extensive and picturesque forest fires thus far this year broke out late Saturday on Shade Mountain, near Middleburg, climbed quickly to the top of the peaked mountain and greatly resembled a volcano by night. A large force of men fought the flames thruout [sic] Sunday and it was not until yesterday the fire was brought under control.
Today, a great deal of Shade and Jacks Mountains are part of the Bald Eagle State Forest. The forest as well as the rest of the county does see its share of fires. Under the direction of District Forester Matt Beaver, fires have been kept to a minimum. From 2000 to 2015 the Bald Eagle District experienced 263 fires that burned 1,654 acres. They average 16 fires per year that burn around 100 acres. The average fire size is 6.3 acres per fire which is the state average for that same period.
As the snow of this latest storm passes into memory, the woods will dry quickly. Be careful with fires out there.