Springtime and South Mountain

South Mountain on the Cumberland – Adams – Franklin County lines has been the scene of many Pennsylvania wildfires.  April 16, 2017 saw yet another fire.

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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.

South Mountain can be a challenge.

Trout Season – The Traditional Opening Day and Fire Danger in the Woods of Pennsylvania

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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.

 

Unusual Causes for Forest Fires in Pennsylvania

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 the investigation, 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.”

100 Years Ago As America Prepared for War, Forest Fire Protection Was Still on the Minds of Many Pennsylvanians

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.


To read the entire article and newspaper you can go to the Smethport newspaper archives at: https://smethport.newspaperarchive.com/  The site is free and available to the public.