Wildfire History of Cape Cod

The wildfire potential of the forests of Cape Cod, located in southeastern Massachusetts, has been described as being the second most flammable place in the nation, behind southern California. With the development of the Cape from the 1960s to the present, the wildfire danger has diminished but thousands of acres are still capable of burning.



Before Europeans settled the Cape, the forests were periodically burned by lightning strikes and the Wampanoag version of the prescribed burn. This kept the amount of underbrush to a minimum, thus allowing the Cape to experience few, if any, major wildfires.


In the 1620s, the Cape was forever altered by the settlement of Europeans. Unfortunately, the settlers did not like periodic fires in their backyards and they put out any fire before it could really burn and do damage. This, and massive deforestation by the initial settlers, led to a large amount of brush accumulating in the surviving woods of the Cape. Unfortunately for the settlers, this caused fires, when they occurred, to really burn and explode instead of burning along the ground. Instead of a quiet fire, the settlers unleashed a beast with potential. The forests of this time were small and spread out so there wasn't much potential for disaster but that all changed during the industrial age.

The Industrial Age

The discovery of the New World led to newfound industries to many Europeans. One was shipbuilding. This was important on the Cape because the tall trees which survived the mass deforestation of the initial settlement, led to the major expansion of the shipbuilding industry. This, along with the decreased farming of the land, created an opportunity for pitch pine and scrub oak to grow in abundance. Unfortunately, this led to many fires burning many acres because the forests began to connect. Many people followed the idea of the time that fires should be stopped as soon as they started. This was a great idea, except for the fact that the brush that normally burned built up as the natural burn cycle was disturbed.

The Modern Era

In the early 1900s, the Cape started to become part of the state's fire lookout tower network. Towers were constructed in many towns to help make the coordinating of fires easier to figure out. This coincidentally was timed with the massive burnings of the forests, not seen since pre-colonial times. This was especially true on the upper cape, where the forests had matured more than the rest of the Cape. Many of the great fires of the 20th century on the Cape occurred here.

Modern techniques for fighting these fires include controlled burns and the clearing of brush. The discontinuation of live firing at the Massachusetts Military Reservation has also contributed to the decrease in the intensity of the fires.


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