Review of MacEachern, The Miramichi Fire

The northwest Miramichi River. Photo courtesy by RJR in NB.

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Alan MacEachern, The Miramichi Fire: A History. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020. 288 pgs. ISBN 9780228001492.

Reviewed by Mark Kuhlberg.

In the wake of a catastrophic forest fire season in the western United States, Alan MacEachern’s The Miramichi Fire: A History reminds us that conflagrations are nothing new. In analyzing the blaze that devastated a vast swath of the Miramichi River valley in New Brunswick in 1825, MacEachern delivers a thorough and engaging account of an event that has paradoxically been lost to the passage of time and still serves as a standard-bearer against which other forest fires are measured.

MacEachern organizes his story in a manner that is easy to follow, beginning with a description of the pre-industrial Acadian forest region. He stresses that it was very different from the one we see today, specifically in terms of having been much older and taller. Nevertheless, he points out that after over two hundred years of commercial harvesting in the province, New Brunswick is still 85% forested. At the root of this chapter and the entire story is the basic fact that forests are always changing (ch. 1). MacEachern also describes the humans who inhabited these woods, beginning with the Mi’gmaq and then the Europeans who started arriving in the 1500s. The timber trade began in earnest in New Brunswick in the early 1800s, and so did the waves of immigration from Britain. The Miramichi valley was home to roughly 8,500 persons by 1825, the year of the fire (ch. 2).

The northwest Miramichi River in 2012. Photo courtesy by RJR in NB.

MacEachern does a splendid job of describing the environmental and social factors that contributed to the fire’s origins and severity. Its precursors included historically cold conditions that presumably mitigated against forest fires and allowed dried, organic matter to accumulate in the bush. The timber trade also boomed in the decade before 1825 (its production in the Miramichi peaked that year), which created unprecedented areas of cutovers and volumes of slash, both of which were highly combustible (ch. 2). Furthermore, the summer of 1825 was one of the hottest and driest in living memory, resulting in low water levels and tinder dry conditions in the woods. In early October, there were reports that the smoke was very thick in the Miramichi valley, but the recently arrived settlers had so little experience with forest fires that they probably did not recognize the approaching danger. Then the fire hit on 7 October (ch. 3).

A forest fire in the mid-19th century, not in New Brunswick but instead in Rupert’s Land. There are no known 19th-century representations of the Miramichi Fire. From William Fitzwilliam and W.B. Cheadle, Voyage de l’Atlantique au Pacifique à Travers Canada… translated by J. Belinde Launay (Paris, 1866).

MacEachern’s description of the fire is so vivid that the reader can practically hear its thunderous rumble, smell its thick smoke, and picture its racing flames. They moved at a lightning pace through much of the valley, and although screams of animals and humans filled the night, the fire’s roar often overpowered them. Residents who sought refuge in the nearby waterways risked falling victim to drowning. Of those who remained on land, an estimated 160 perished during and soon after the blaze; “everywhere there were bodies,” the author morbidly explains (100). MacEachern also describes the heavy toll that the fire exacted on the local fauna. Other fires were burning in northeastern North America during October and smoke covered the entire region for days on end. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the Miramichi Fire, estimated to have covered roughly 6,000 square miles, meant that its name became “shorthand for all the fires that season” (80).

The author provides a valuable education in the behaviour of forest fires in describing the aftermath of this legendary blaze. He reminds us that they burn unevenly, turning some trees to ash but also leaving pockets of the woods unscathed and many others burnt to varying degrees. The author also surveys the different theories about how the fire started; he dryly notes that the consensus was that human carelessness was the cause but there was no “smoking gun” (52).

MacEachern demonstrates that the human and physical landscapes that the fire affected recovered remarkably rapidly in the wake of the fire. Most of the local residents remained in the area and tenaciously fought to rebuild their lives. This was a particularly daunting task given that the blaze left so many of them without supplies and shelter just as winter was approaching. An international relief effort aided them greatly, and it was the largest program of its kind in pre-Confederation Canada. It ultimately raised an estimated £50,000 (ch. 4).

In terms of the local non-human environment, MacEachern adroitly describes how it regenerated because that is what forests do, and therein lies the explanation for the fire having been largely forgotten. A few spots were severely scorched and suffered long-term damage, such as the newly created Bartibog barrens. At the other extreme, stands of mighty conifers escaped the flames. They, and the numerous clumps of trees that had been only lightly burned, continued growing and sustained the timber trade for the rest of the century and thus contributed to the iconic fire being lost to the passage of time. As MacEachern eloquently notes, “every day that the Miramichi Fire receded into the past, nature worked to cover its traces” (147). This dynamic also led to the blaze being memorialized inaccurately. An early twentieth century account of the fire by the botanist and historian William F. Ganong, for example, became canon even though it was based on faulty evidence. Ganong could not reconcile what he was seeing – a forest that appeared generally healthy – with earlier tales of the blaze’s widespread destruction, and so he contended that the legendary Miramichi Fire had been merely a number of smaller fires burning over a broad region. As such, MacEachern insightfully points out how Ganong “was using nature against itself. He was using its restorative power to discredit its destructive power” (174).

Dr. W.F. Ganong in the Renous River district of New Brunswick, 1904. Courtesy of the New Brunswick Museum – Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, Acc. 1987.17.1219.187.

MacEachern’s accessible writing style makes the book a pleasure to read. The Miramichi Fire benefits enormously from his usual creative turns of phrases and thoughtful prose. In chronicling this benchmark historical event, MacEachern contributes an important chapter to our country’s forest history and delivers a valuable lesson in the challenges we face in recounting stories of an environment that is constantly in flux.

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