On an unusually hot day in October 1825, Islanders from West Point to North Cape watched in alarm and disbelief as huge plumes of smoke rose above the horizon across the Strait. Years later, they would proudly tell their grandchildren, “I saw that Miramichi Fire and you’ve never seen anything like it!” In the fire’s aftermath, charity pamphlets were printed, fundraisers held, mawkish poems written, and healthy amounts of blame were bandied about. Someone even wrote a fiddle tune about it. The Miramichi River watershed, and the lives of everyone on it, was forever transformed by the disaster.
In his book, The Miramichi Fire: A History, Islander Alan MacEachern details the story of the great fire that burned across one-fifth of New Brunswick, killing a couple hundred people and leaving thousands homeless. It is a tale of the timber trade and shipbuilding, and of immigrants learning the hard way how terrible a North American forest fire could be. Could a fire like this happen again? Of course, given our warming climate and uncertain rainfall. Even PEI has experienced its share of destructive wildfires and no doubt we will have more in our future.
One of the reassuring themes of The Miramichi Fire is how hard people work to rebuild after disasters. Sometimes we learn from the experience, but sometimes we go back to doing what led to the event in the first place. Fortunately, historians like MacEachern come along and dig up all that had been forgotten.
Author Alan MacEachern is from PEI but currently resides in Ontario. He is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. The Miramichi Fire: A History was shortlisted for the 2021 Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing. The book was published by McGill-Queens University Press and released in July 2020. It can be purchased at mqup.ca.