(Long) Historic Fires
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Sat Sep 1 17:01:46 EST 2001
The following is from The Oregonian, Aug. 19, 2001, p A18
Raging fires all too familiar a refrain
By John Terry, column Oregon's Trails
As recent blaze along the Willamette River ridge in North Portland
and the current rash of wildfires across the West aptly illustrate,
the region's history is frequently illuminated by flames.
Early explorers noted Native Americans' use of fire.
In September and October 1826, naturalist David Douglas tramped up
the Willamette Valley in search of botanical specimens and for nine
days found nothing but burned over land that caused him to complain of
feet "very sore from the burned stumps of the low brush-wood and
He also noted the rationale for the massive fires:
"Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging
deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned,
and of course they are easily killed. Others say that it is done in
order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers,
which both serve as articles of winter food."
In recording his 1839 trip across the Blue Mountains with Nathaniel
Wyeth's second expedition, John Kirk Townsend, a physician and
ornithologist, observed "The grass has lately been consumed, and many
of the trees blasted by the ravaging fires of the Indians. These fires
are yet smoldering, and the smoke from them effectually prevents our
viewing the surrounding country."
Beneficial though some fires might be, there inevitably were times
when the flames, either from nature or man-made, raged out of control,
turning huge areas to useless cinders, taking both human and animal
lives. In an essay titlted "The World In Flames" in the 1973 anthology
"Land of the Multnomahs," Prudence Edwards Denney described one such
"...on the sands were black bear and elk, cougar, and countless other
wild creatures, so terrified of the flames that they showed no fear of
the Indians. Man and beast cowered close to the sea, for the heat was
intense, even on the beach by the icy sea...Black ashes fell thick on
the dunes and were washed up in a sooty froth by the tide...The
darknes increased until it seemed like night."
The most notorious and thoroughly chronicled Oregon wildfire is the
1933 Tillamook Burn, ignited on the hot August day in a logging camp
on Gales Creek west of Forest Grove. It burned more than 240,000 acres
in Washington, Yamhill and Tillamook counties, destroying 12 billion
board feet of old-growth timber and blazing with such intensity that
ashes fell on ships 400 miles at sea.
But it was not without even more destructive antecedents:
- 1848: Nestucca fire, likely started by settlers clearing land,
300,000 acres between Tillamook and Lincoln City.
- 1849: Siletz fire, cause unknown, 800,000 acres, 1,250 square
miles, between the Siuslaw and Siletz rivers.
- 1853: Yaquina fire, cause unknown, 480,000 acres, 750 square miles,
starting near Corvallis and raging across the Coast Range to Yaquina
Bay. A Newport newspaper reported "night and day of equal darkness."
- 1865: Silverton fire, 990,000 acres, 1,547 square miles southeast
of Salem, three times the area of Multnomah County, the largest fire
ever in Oregon
- 1868: Coos Bay fire, 300,000 acres of what's now Elliott State
forest in Coos County, caused by settlers clearing land. Smoke drifted
as far north as Portland, where one Willamette River pilot was of the
opinion "lighthouses will be needed on the Willamette to enable
steamers to find their way up and down."
- 1902: Columbia fire, 170,000 acres near Mount Hood, in which
several people died.
- 1902: Yacolt fire, 239,000 acres northwest of Vancouver, Wash.,
which killed 35 people.
Perhaps the most noteworthy 20th century blaze apart from the
Tillamook Burn occurred three years after it in the south coast town
of Bandon. The town was founded in 1873 by George Bennet, who named
the place for the Bandon River in his native County Cork, Ireland.
Whether he was responsible for the fury of the 1936 fire isn't
certain. Writer Steward Holbrook faulted Bennet for importing, in a
moment of homesick sentimentality, a voracious European shrub known as
gorse, Ulex europaeus.
Gorse, which looks something like scotch broom, grows outward,
choking out other vegetation and leving a center of dry, dead
vegetation characterized by thorns and a high content of natural oil.
The thorns snag dead leaves and other debris with the efficiency of a
In 1936, Bandon was a thriving community of 1,800 known for lumber
mills, shipyards, cheese, cranberries and sumemr residents who swelled
the population to around 3,000. It was also overrun by gorse. Big
gorse. Thick gorse. In virtually every yard, much of it the size of
On that unseasonably warm Sept. 26 slash fires were burning not far
from town, signs of logging activity as usual. Sometime in the
afternoon, an east wind came up, carrying smoke and ashes toward town
from a slash burn on Bear Creek. One spark in a clump of gorse was all
The resulting inferno was beyond imagination. Flames, so hot that
fire hoses full of water melted, roared through town. By 11 p.m. it
was clear that efforts to stem the inferno were futile.
Residents fled as best they could and sand dunes across the Coquille
River and to the jetty along the river, along the hellish highway to
Coquille. The fire eventually charred 287,000 acres, mostly
second-growth timber. Only 16 of Bandon's 500 buildings remained
standing. Fourteen people lost their lives.
Comment by poster: as can be seen from the above noted fires, fire is
a major threat to health in Oregon. While Native Americans set fires,
they were often what would be called "cool" fires by todays standards.
They seldom burned material more than 3 inches in diameter. While John
Terry does not note it, I was informed these fires were set to clear
underbrush so that Native Americans could see deer and other prey.
What they could see, they could pursue and kill.
After fires, morels and other mushrooms were much easier to see and
To people not from Oregon, this underbrush may not be described in any
believable way. Let it suffice that history records it was faster to
walk _on top of the vine maple_ along the Oregon coast, than trying to
thread your way through the dense stems covered with moss underneath.
Some of this maple forest still exists near Neakahnie Mountain. But be
forewarned: the ocean is several hundred feet below, and the canopy is
not _always_ complete. Then there is the omnipresent wind, shaping the
spruce, maple and pine into bizarre botanical sculptures, where all
the branches are on one side of the tree, and usually pointed in the
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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