Remnants of the Stickey house in Townsend in 1927, destroyed by the fire. COURTESY PHOTO/TOWNSEND HISTORICAL SOCIETYSun staff photos can be ordered by
Remnants of the Stickey house in Townsend in 1927, destroyed by the fire. COURTESY PHOTO/TOWNSEND HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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TOWNSEND -- A 20-acre wildfire in West Townsend on April 21 passed almost unnoticed except to those who fought it.

Spotted from a distant fire tower, the call came in at 2:30 p.m. Firefighters were finished 5 1/2 hours later. No dwellings were damaged, and a few weeks after the blaze, the woods were already greening up.

It was a different story in the spring of 1927. The Townsend Times headlines from April 21 screamed, "$100,000 loss in record-breaking fire."

The forest fire began in the same area near Rusk Quarry and burned for a day and a half, destroying miles of timber, a school, homes, barns, outbuildings and cut lumber.

Covering an estimated 16,000 acres, or 28 square miles, the fire spread to Pepperell and the New Hampshire border towns of Hollis, Brookline and Mason before favorable weather arrived to help the 1,000 exhausted firefighters put out the flames.

As with today's mutual-aid system, neighboring communities sent firefighters and equipment. The Boston and Maine Railroad sent more than 500 to assist in the battle against the fire that was believed to have started along the tracks, ignited by a passing train. Residents and restaurants made food to feed the hungry firefighters.

Much has changed in the decades between the two fires, said Rob Johnson, district fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Modern forestry practices manage woodlands and encourage the growth of healthy trees.

In the early 20th century, the land affected by the fire was heavily logged by the Fessenden company to supply wood for making barrels in the factory in the center of town. The loggers removed only the useful part of the trees, leaving plenty of fuel from smaller branches and leaves that could feed a fire.

The 1927 fire burned so hot because of that available fuel. The soils were neutralized, and the organic material needed for regrowth was gone, Johnson said. The 60-year-old trees that have grown in the meantime are much skinnier than would normally be expected.

Wildland fires are usually detected more quickly in the modern age, Johnson said. A series of fire towers is manned when the danger of forest fires reaches a certain point. He was not sure which tower spotted the recent Townsend conflagration, but towers in Chelmsford, Princeton and Andover are all watching over the area.

Modern equipment also makes a difference. Today's tankers carry up to 2,000 gallons of water. In 1927, Townsend had one 500-gallon truck. A Wachusett pumper that had recently been purchased, and assembled in Fitchburg, took the front page of the April 28 Times.

The truck was just as much a hero to the writer of the article as "the men with blackened faces, red eyes, many of them seared and scorched" who manned it, "(h)anging on that Wachusett apparatus as it plugged and pulled through mire holes and over steep grades through narrow woods roads, stopping here and there, pumping sometimes a closely guarded small stream from a well or limited supply and at other times a measureless deluge at terrific pressure," as the article read.

Most firefighters used specially designed forest-fighting equipment, such as hand extinguishers, dirt, shovels and brooms, the account read.

At a Town Meeting held a month after the fire, voters approved $11,000 in funding for new fire apparatus.

Today's pumpers normally hold at least 2,000 gallons of water and engines can hold 500 gallons, said Brian Mayer, a wildland firefighter and on-call member of the Townsend department.

Communications have also improved since 1927, helping firefighters in their job. Back then, there were no cellphones. Calls for help were relayed by the railroad.

"Up and down the road went calls for assistance and special trains were put out, carrying volunteers from Boston, Fitchburg and Nashua ready to assist the townspeople in subduing the fires," the account read.

For those who lived through the 1927 blaze, the fire is seared in memory.

Wally King lived on Scales Lane and watched an event that he still remembers 76 years later. 

"We sat on the porch," he said. "I was only 4 years old. (My mother) came and she sat with me. We watched the fire go from West Townsend over West Hill into Pepperell."