Many of us are watching as much of Oregon, Washing, and California burn. The fires have been so bad and so devastating that the smoke has even reached the coast this week. Making the air nearly unbreathable. Many have compared what is happening now to the Tillamook Burn. The high-heat, high-wind and low humidity are the perfect combination to create devastating wildfires.
When people mention the Tillamook Burn, what they’re probably referring to is the one that began in 1933, but in fact, there were several burns over decades that devastated Oregon. There were four fires from 1933-1951.
On August 14, 1933, a fire began. The fire was said to have started in Gale Creek Canyon in Tillamook. The cause of this wildfire was and is still debated. Some say that it was intentionally set by one rival logging company in order to impact another company, or due to negligence. The cause that has been accepted by many publications is a steel cable dragging on a fallen Douglas fir. The cable rubbed against the dry bark causing enough friction to set the snag ablaze. In my county, we’ve been asked not to mow our lawns in the event it somehow causes a spark, which in turn, can cause a fire.
At the time that this fire started there was a bad drought in Oregon. Because of this logging companies were issued a cease and desist orders to halt logging. However, the logging company that was still operating was said to have been unaware such a warning. Whatever the case, one of the most historically devastating fires in Oregon history had begun. It decimated through 311,000 acres before finally being extinguished, not by man, but by September rains. The fire was battled by several thousand fire fighters most of them were volunteers, loggers, farmers and men from the Civilian Conservation Corps with little to no firefighting experience.
One of the reasons that this fire is so well known in our area was due to the speed with which it moved and the weather that created the perfect setting for such a fast-moving fire. In just 10 days the fire had burned about 63 square miles of forest. One of the factors associated with creating a perfect “storm” was the relative low humidity at the time. Generally, the Oregon Coast (most of Oregon for that matter) has a relative humidity over 60%, even in the summers. At the time, the humidity was down to about 20%. Additionally, high temperatures and easterly winds didn’t help the situation. The humidity in a lot of Oregon yesterday, was nearly 0%.
By the end of the fire over $442 million in contemporary (1933) dollars of lumber were lost – serious loss to the timber industry and the nation. During this time the United States was struggling through the Great Depression. Salvage operations were immediately begun to harvest usable portion of the burned wilderness. Some of the trees, despite being burned, had usable timber inside.
This first fire paved the way for a series of other devastating fires in the Tillamook Forest. Another fire in 1939 burned over 200,000 acres, and in 1945 two fires burned another 182,000 acres. The Tillamook Burn was and still is, at least at the time I’m writing this, one of the most devastating fires in Oregon history.
According to Ellis Lucia in his book, Tillamook Burn Country, “Northern Oregon beaches were buried two feet deep in ash and debris, which also fell onto ships five hundred miles at sea and on Boise, Idaho. The great smoke cloud was seen in Montana.”
Forest fires, or fires in general, are going to happen. Most of us are aware of this. That’s why many communities have a fire department, often established well before a police force. For example, Cannon Beach’s fire department was established in 1947, while a Cannon Beach Police Department wasn’t established until much later.
Most of the fire fighters in Oregon are volunteers. They are landscapers, mechanics, business owners, basically people you see every day. For myself, I can’t even imagine the breathless heat that getting close to an out of control fire would be like. And what is even harder to imagine is the kind of people who are landscapers, mechanics, and business owners that know what a fire is like and still answer the call. Cannon Beach is no exception. So, if you can, thank a fire fighter. Or better yet, buy that guy or gal a beer. They deserve it.
Break down of the fires.
1933, 1939, 1945 and finally the final fire in 1951.
Additional reading https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/tillamook_burn/#.X1jp6C2z1Bw