Fierce firestorm hit Bandon in 1936
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Tue Aug 6 23:10:13 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, Aug. 6, 2002, p A7
Fierce firestorm hit Bandon in 1936
There was little residents could do when the blaze struck the coastal
town, destroying everything
By WENDY OWEN, Correspondent, The Oregonian
BANDON - Some described the firestorm that destroyed Bandon in 1936
as something out of Dante's Inferno.
Oregon had never seen anything like the forest fire that swept in on
Sept. 26, killing 13 people and destroying the town of about 2,000
residents in four hours. It remains the most deadly forest fire in the
"The flames looked like a big wave," said Harvey Hiley, 75. He was
born and raised in Bandon and was 9 at the time of the fire.
Concrete skeletons stood as tombstones to the buildings gutted by
flames. Houses exploded into balls of fire leaving only metal bed
frames, chimneys and hot water heaters standing in the ashes. The
asphalt melted and sank, making street appear as though an earthquake
had hit. Photos taken at the time could be mistaken for post-World War
Several residents, who were children at the time, still live in
Bandon, now a town of about 2,800 people. They remember a dry summer
in 1936 and hot wind replacing the typical cool Pacific breeze for
weeks before the fire.
The flames on matches stood 4-inches tall and quickly consumed the
matchstick. Wallpaper split and peeled away from the walls, said Betty
Several small forest fires burned in Coos County, including two
within five miles of Bandon.
Dow Beckham, a Coos Bay resident and author of "Bandon By-The-Sea,"
said that a 36-mph east wind pushed the Bear Creek fire toward town
and reached the first house at 9 p.m. Telephone wires melted, cutting
off communications. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. "Bandon burned to the
ground," according to a fire log written that night.
"I never say a house catch fire. They just exploded," said Edgar
Capps, 77, who was 11 at the time.
About 1,800 people lost their homes that night, Beckham said.
Thirteen people died, including Ida Hill who returned to her home to
save her new washing machine. The body of George Williams was found
clutching a handful of melted gold coins.
Most of those who died were senior citizens. That winter,
smoke-related pneumonia claimed several more people who are not
included in the death toll.
Betty Hiley was 7 years old at the time, but the images of that night
haven't faded since she saw them more than six decades ago.
Like many families, Betty Hiley and her siblings fled to the beach.
Flaming embers rained on them as they sat on blankets in the sand near
the ocean and her mother wetted cloth diapers to beat out the flames
that sparked on their clothing.
Betty Hiley remembers looking up on the ridge at the houses. The
building frames were all that remained, and they were still aflame.
"It was as if it was painted with fire," she said.
Harvey Hiley, 9 years old at the time, remembers walking down the
hill with his family and his mother's straw hat blowing off in the
wind and catching fire.
Edgar Capps and his family made it to one of two ships at the docks.
The Alvarado, a lumber schooner, helped rescue many people that night,
including the Cappses.
Capps recalled looking up from the boat that night to where the
Catholic church had stood on the hill. The church was gone, but the
"It was a little eerie," he said.
A while later, he watched it fall to the ground.
The devastation was a lot harder on folks then. Not only did the fire
hit during the Great Depression, but the technology needed to fight
such a firestorm didn't exist. There were no evacuation preparedness
alerts, no firefighting aircraft, no weather-predicting radar, no fire
behavior specialists, little government assistance, and no homeowners
They relied on each other and strangers to survive. Farmers
distributed produce; a local bakery, which survived the fire, gave
away bread; people from out of town brought groceries.
"It's very difficult to take that era and put it into this one,"
Betty Hiley said. "The camaraderie. You though of others before
Most Bandon residents lived with their friends or family until their
houses were rebuilt.
Beatrice DeCosta, 88, lived with her husband for two years in a
community of government-built tar-paper shacks, complete with communal
Edgar Capps' family rented a home on the edge of town with two other
Harvey Hiley crowded into a relative's home with several other family
The National Guard built a tent city in the middle of Bandon for
other homeless people and served soup and coffee.
"It's an awful thing to go through," DeCosta said.
Their advice to families facing wildfires is to leave when told,
don't worry about material goods and stay optimistic.
"You will survive. You will rebuild," said Betty Hiley. "It can be
better than it was before."
Comment by poster: There may be some question why I posted this
article to these two particular groups. There is a treasure lead
imbedded in this article, although it may seem a little gruesome.
With all the talk this year of major fires in Oregon, I thought it
would be a good idea to also compare what we are now seeing with what
has already happened.
The very interesting thing about the Bandon fire of 1936 was that gold
coinage was not outlawed until 1938...but as the article states, the
coins found today might not be in a recognizable form.
Daniel B. Wheeler
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