Recent news stories on both sides of Lake Champlain reported a huge, dark cloud of smoke rising above northern Clinton County. A section of the Altona Flat Rock was afire, and within a day, more than 300 acres were scorched.
Dry conditions across the North Country were cited as the reason it spread so quickly, but there were other factors I happen to be familiar with because the first book I wrote, back in 1980, was titled A History of the Altona Flat Rock. The area in question comprises fifteen square miles of uninhabited wildlands which, by nature, is a very dry environment.
Two chapters in the book help explain the volatility of the Flat Rock when it comes to fire. It is classified as a sandstone-pavement barrens: nearly level bedrock, forming a surface similar to pavement; jack pines as the dominant tree (fire is required for them to regenerate, exploding the cones and spreading the seeds); blueberry and huckleberry plants as the dominant shrubs; and lichens and mosses as the dominant ground cover. There is variation in each category, of course, but that is a near-perfect description of the Altona Flat Rock. Only 20 similar sites have been identified worldwide, five of which are in New York State.
In an enhanced, 25th-anniversary edition of my book, there is reference to “the early days of man’s history on the rock, when vast tracts were intentionally burned to produce huge crops of blueberries…. An area that had become unproductive because of an overgrowth of brush and shrubs was set afire. These ‘burn-overs’ were controlled as much as possible.” Because of natural conditions and sparse, primitive equipment, containing them was dicey at best.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, burn-overs were common practice at the end of a berry season, leading to roughly a decade of explosive blueberry growth. This was important to the region’s economy, which was similar to parts of Maine and Quebec, where large, flat-rock blueberry tracts generated sales into the millions of dollars.
A famous Clinton County benefactor, William Miner, eventually owned nearly the entire Altona Flat Rock. His legacy lives on today through the Miner Institute in Chazy, New York, which is officially known as the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute. It’s well worth it to follow the link for a brief description of the spectacular farming operation he created.
From the experience of roaming the Flat Rock for hundreds of hours, I can confirm one thing: it is HOT! If nearby temperatures happen to be in the 90-degree range, conditions on the Rock are difficult to the point of unbearable for more than a few minutes. Among those to study the Rock are Plattsburgh State University Professors Kenneth Adams and David Franzi, who noted in a 1993 report, “Summer air temperature in bare rock areas, however, may be as much as 16°C [61°F] higher than in the surrounding areas, and midday temperatures commonly exceed 38°C [100°F]…. The combined effects of anomalously high summer air temperature, low seasonal water availability, and flammable foliage produce a fire-prone environment at Altona Flat Rock.”
Fires were an issue during Miner’s lifetime, but 27 years after his death, the conflagration of 1957 was a game-changer. Louis Barnaby, a man I interviewed several times in the late 1970s, was the Miner game warden at the time. He frequently utilized a 20-foot-high fire tower on the central Flat Rock to monitor conditions, and in mid-afternoon on August 21, he saw that all was well. But that evening, Louis received a phone call from an Altona resident who reported smoke rising above the Rock. Thus began the worst fire in New York State in more than a decade.
Within a day, wind-driven flames had consumed 500 acres in the area between Cold Brook Marsh and the Dead Sea. By the evening of August 23, approximately 500 volunteers had joined firefighters in what had thus far been a battle of futility. The remote site was inaccessible to heavy equipment, for there were few roads, and the landscape featured many ledges. So the fire grew, and eventually became so expansive that accessibility was less of a factor, for in many instances the fire had come to them. In the village of Altona and at many sites along the perimeter of the Rock, fire threatened homes and barns, which were saved only by the heroic efforts of firemen and volunteers. It was feared at times that the rapidly advancing flames would consume the entirety of Altona village itself.
It became a drawn-out, up-and-down battle, where the flames appeared to be contained, leading to the departure of many volunteers, who were recalled when the fire was again declared out of control. Ashes rained on Altona and other nearby villages, and thick smoke made breathing difficult. Firefighters placed themselves at risk, saving properties by soaking them with water even as flames approached to within mere yards.
The massive cloud of smoke above Clinton County was visible from distant locations, including Saranac Lake and central Vermont. The night sky glowed an ominous red, and for days the fire continued to spread as burning ashes carried by the wind ignited new blazes.
The fire was of unusual duration, and for that reason, telling the story consumed an entire chapter of the book. Interviewing firefighters and area residents, animated by memories 20 years after the fact, was a high point of the research.
The tide gradually turned in favor of the firefighting army, whose morale was significantly boosted when six glorious hours of continuous rain fell on September 2. While the fire still burned, only controllable sections remained. Two long, hot, nerve-wracking weeks after the blaze began, it was finally quelled.
Left in its wake were approximately 3,000 acres of scorched land, and the equivalent cost in 2018 of $500,000. Part of that amount covered paid volunteers (a confusing term, but it is a thing) who signed in for repeated firefighting stints. District Fire Ranger George Young said that at the height of the fire, between 1,400 and 1,500 people were battling the blaze. Support, equipment, manpower, and donations were provided by dozens of regional businesses, private citizens, and firemen’s auxiliaries. Community effort on a large scale is what got the job done.
Another fire on the Rock burned 40 acres in 1965. Since then, access to the area has been restricted by a permit system managed by Miner Institute. I’ve enjoyed the privilege many times, savoring the high cliffs, rock ridges, glacial features, bodies of water, berry ledges, and varied wildlife on what is my favorite of all North Country regions to explore. Parts of it look a little different now, for the recent fire lasted several days and consumed more than 500 acres. On the plus side, there are some great berry seasons on the horizon!
Photos: Altona Flat Rock (Google Maps); Altona Flat Rock Fire Tower (2005); road south of the tower (2005)