Sunday, May 31, 2015

Yellow Days: Adirondack Forest Fires And Air Quality

May 31 Forest Fire Haze 002 - EnidWe tend to think of air pollution only occurring in cities, especially over a century ago when there were no air pollution regulations in place and the industrial revolution was in its hey-day. But it appears that air pollution plagued city-dwellers wherever they went.

I spent a day at the Adirondack Museum reading through the camp diary of the Stott family on Raquette Lake (1882-1900). One of the first entries in 1882 is a remark that it was the year of the ‘Yellow Day’ because for a week or so the sky had a peculiar yellowish color to it and the sun hung in the air like a hazy red ball, obscured by fire smoke that filled the atmosphere.

This same phenomena occurred again in 1894. Mrs. Stott (or Commodore Stott, I’m not entirely sure) clipped an article and glued it to a page from the diary entry in 9/2/1894. It said, in brief, “the sun shone red in the sky but cast no shadow. …it was a dark day…lights were necessary in the cabins and churches even during the day and it left an uncanny feeling and fear.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Stott’s diary entry from 1894 also reveals how wide-spread the fires were. The writer says that the fine ash falling on the ladies’ skirts as they rowed back to camp from church on St. Hubert’s Isle was coming from Loon Lake (in Franklin County). The air, the writer states, was heavy, thick, and there was no breeze to clear it.

Indeed, forest fires were so far-reaching in the late 1800s to mid 1900s that in some instances the smoke reached New York City. I found a New York Times article (1903) titled “Forest Fires Make the City Miserable”. It mentions that ‘Yellow Days’ that annoyed New Yorkers in 1881 and again in 1894 were causing New York City to go dark. The cause? The forest fires in the Northern woods of New York and Vermont. The reasons for the fires? Numerous.

In the spring, the slash left behind by lumber companies, and ‘duff’ (dead pine needles and leaf litter) builds up on the forest floor and provide perfect kindling for a fire. Another cause a century ago were the steam powered locomotives traveling through the mountains. Sparks would fly from the un-screened smokestacks, landing in the forests along the way. The locomotives also dumped coal embers along the tracks which could easily start a fire. Eventually, the fine for a railroad company found not to have screens on their smokestacks was only $100.00. Hardly enough of a penalty to induce action. And it didn’t take much if the conditions were dry and a wind picked-up an ember to light a fire that would spread.

The Stotts kept copious notes on the weather conditions (that and the fish catch that year) and there are quite a few references between 1882-1894 to forest fires, a thick and heavy atmosphere, and hazy sky. It is interesting, when put into perspective, the irony of the situation. People were By then, people were beginning to travel to the mountains to escape the smell and stench of the thriving industrialized cities, only to arrive in the mountains and find civilization intruding once again on their pleasure.

Photo: Above, smoke from Quebec fires cloud Lake George in 2010 (courtesy Enid Mastrianni); and below, the Stott diary.

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Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at Cayuga Community College and is currently writing a trilogy of historical fiction featuring the Durant family. Her first book Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga was published in 2015. The second book in the series, Castles in the Air: A Durant Family Saga, will be published in 2016. To learn more visit

8 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    Nice article! It’s useful to note that these fires and public anxiety about them led, in large part, to the establishment of the Forest Preserve, in 1885, and the Adk Park, in 1892. In those days, loggers were after softwoods only (except near the iron forges, where hardwoods were cut for charcoal), and logging alone did not appear to threaten the continuing existence of the great northern forests. It was these catastrophic fires that pushed New York to protect the Adks. Similar fires were occurring throughout the mixed northern forests, from Wisconsin to New Brunswick. Fire historian Stephen Pyne has called the years between the Civil War and World War i “the great era of holocausts.”

    • Sheila Myers says:

      Thanks Phil – I have used your book: Contested Terrain, extensively as a resource for my research.

  2. Bruce says:

    That coupled with what must have been horrendous odors hanging in the air, and not just smoke. Nessmuk recounts that upon returning from one of his 3 forays into the Adirondacks, as he was crossing the Moose River from the Brown’s Tract Road, he landed his canoe in the tannery ooze at Moose River settlement. I understand that was one of the biggest tanneries in NY at the time. When the haze and smoke are not being dissipated by wind, neither are the local smells.

  3. Paul says:

    A few years back some pretty extensive fires burning in Ontario left a pretty weird haze across the Adirondacks.

    Man made fires are not part of the normal ecosystem but is there any negative impacts ecologically of dousing every fire that threatens the Adirondacks. Too many homes to let them burn but I wonder what is the long-term impact on the forest might be?

    • AG says:

      Yes – they have studied that in other areas (what happens when you put out natural forest fires). They have concluded that is part of the reason that out west fires are “worse” than usual. All the fuel that would be burned up during natural fires become “explosive”. It’s literally adding fuel to when man made fires occur.
      As to the other impact – well we know fires are a part of a natural regeneration of forests. Just like having too many grazers without predators to keep them in check – suppression of natural fires makes the forest “weaker”.

    • Bruce says:

      Paul, if the big fire in Yellowstone in the 80’s is any indicator, the consensus now seems to be let natural fires burn, while protecting buildings and other necessary infrastructure. The causes and effects of that fire have become one of the most studied in history. The long-term studies are still going on.

      As a result of those studies, National Forest, National Park, and state agencies are practicing more controlled burns to keep the effects of a wildfire in places where the previous practice of putting down each and every fire as quickly as possible has allowed fire sensitive materials to collect in an unnatural way over the years. Protect property, but let nature-caused fires burn. Does that answer your question?

      Another thing which came out of that, and other studies is certain plants require fire for procreation. Here is a link you may want to look at:

      • Paul says:

        It doesn’t entirely answer the question. These studies are focused on western ecosystems. What is true out there may not correlate to a north eastern deciduous forest like we have here. I lived in Colorado for many years and I can tell you from personal experience these are two very different ecosystems. Yes some western trees do need fire to release their seeds I suspect we have nothing like that here in the east. That could be an indication that fire is an important part of that ecosystem but not part of ours? I have seen land on Rockefeller’s property that was extensively burned over and it never recovered (you can check it out on google maps). So I think this is a complicated question.

        • Bruce says:

          Paul, I believe fire from natural causes benefits all forests by keeping down the amount of burnable material which naturally accumlates over time and contribute to major, forest destroying conflagrations, as well as adding nutrients to the soil. Some of this buildup was recognized to be a result of killing all fires as quickly as possible, under the assumption all fires were bad for the forest.

          Now there is an additional factor, which will be much more difficult to deal with. The stands of insect killed spruce and hemlock are bombs, just waiting for the first spark. Here in the Smokies, we have the same thing, acres of dead Black Spruce and Hemlock on the mountainsides just waiting for ignition.

          I’m curious, was the Roosevelt fire in virgin forest, or second growth?

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