Professional golfer Tom Watson once said, “I’d rather fight 100 structure fires than a wildfire. With a structure fire you know where your flames are, but in the woods it can move anywhere; it can come right up behind you.”
Forest fires have been doing just that in Oregon — and elsewhere in the heavily wooded Pacific Northwest since long before recorded history. Scientists note that it wasn’t just lightning strikes and other acts of nature that started the fires — Native Americans did too.
Early anthropologist Henry Morgan Lewis (1818-1881) called this Indian practice “pyro culture.”
They deliberately set forest fires (anthropogenic fires) for a variety of reasons that benefitted their subsistence. They were not just “hunters and gatherers.” It was a different form of agriculture from Euro-Americans ways. The Indians knew that fires would create and fertilize open spaces for grasses and food plants.
They were remarkably good environmentalists.
In a Washington County Museum article, archaeologist Sonya Gray wrote, “This practice, which began as early as 3,500 years ago, was necessary as a result of population stress on natural systems.
“The Kalapuya used fire in circle deer hunting and to harvest tarweed, burn grass, kill great numbers of grasshoppers, remove undergrowth in oak groves, make acorns more visible, and to remove brush.
“They also used fire to improve deer and elk habitat and hazelnut production, as well as to improve and spread berry and camas habitat.”
Expanding Gray’s description — The fires would drive wild game to unburned grazing areas where they could more easily be hunted, as well as promoting growth of berries, nuts, herbs and roots — like the camas.
The Indians also burned hazel trees and other plants producing materials for basket weaving.
Perhaps less known is that the Indians also created forest fires simply for aesthetic reasons.
One report told about a recorded a lament from a Methow tribal elder by anthropologist Jay Miller: “When my people lived here, we took good care of all this land. We burned it over every fall to make it like a park. Now it is a jungle.”
Miller also interviewed Frank Drew, a member of the Coos tribe in 1930, who said that fire “helped create and maintain a fine and beautiful open country.”
Nature-made forest fires such as lightning strikes are rare in the Pacific Northwest, according to multiple reports. Possibly, the rainy weather is the reason. But there have been some monster fires that are well recorded:
Oregon’s first recorded forest fire happened in 1845, destroying much of the Coastal Range where only Indians lived. It was a time when hordes of settlers were arriving from the east over the Oregon Trail.
One of the settlers named Johnson arrived several years earlier, having deserted from an English sailing ship where he was the cook
He took a land claim near Champoeg and started clearing off the brush and debris in the unusually hot and dry summer of 1845.
After he’d started a good fire, winds changed directions, fanning the flames into an inferno that swept across the Willamette Valley and attacked the Coastal Range.
For days, the Indians could see smoke billowing in the east, and then flames appeared at hilltops. Terrified, they jumped into dugout canoes and swiftly paddled toward the sea. On a half-mile wide sandpit they waited out the encroaching blaze.
Some 1,500,000 acres were destroyed.
After rains finally put the fire out, the Indians headed home.
Here’s what they saw, according to Siuslaw National Forest ranger Leonard Whitmore:
“Paddling up the river to their haunts, gruesome sights met their eyes at every turn. Here and there piled up in groups were bands of elk and deer charred crisp; bear found nearly barbecued; and panthers, with their bodies in the water, showed their ghastly cooked heads.”
Eight years later, the Yaquina Burn destroyed another 450,000 acres around Yaquina, once a coastal resort town for the Willamette Valley — now long gone, having given way to today’s bustling Newport and Toledo.
All the remains of the old settlement are parts of a railroad trestle and some pier pilings sticking out of the estuary waters — but the great burn of 1853 keeps Yaquina in the history books.
Aug. 14, 1933, was a day to remember: It was 104 degrees hot, with 20 percent humidity. Toiling under those conditions were loggers operating on a mountain slope above the North Fork of Gales Creek, in the northern Oregon Coast Range 50 miles west of Portland.
A large Douglas fir log was dragged across a dry dead tree in an area of extremely flammable logging debris near a railroad spur. As every Boy Scout knows, a fire can be started by rubbing two sticks together.
Within an hour, 60 acres went up in flames. Loggers had no hope of stopping it with shovels and hoes.
It was the first of four major forest fires called the Tillamook Burn.
Ten days later, 40,000 acres had gone up in smoke, but on the night of Aug. 24, a strong wind suddenly blew in from the east and helped the flames eat up another 200,000 acres within 24 hours.
Thousands of firefighters, volunteers, loggers, farmers and Civilian Conservation Corps workers could only watch helplessly as the firestorm raged. The dead trees it left behind became dry tinder for three more fires that followed in 1939, 1945 and 1951.
Many landowners in the burn area couldn’t pay their taxes and abandoned their properties to the counties who later turned the land over to the state, with the state agreeing to share revenues with them from future logging operations.
However, not all was lost in the Tillamook Burn. Between 1934 and 1971, loggers were able to salvage some 7.5 billion board-feet of timber from the trees killed by the fire.
Another tragedy in the history of Oregon fires was the Silver Lake Fire of Christmas Eve 1894 in south-central Oregon.
Almost all of the town’s 200 or so people were jammed into a 1,200-square-foot room above Chrisman Brothers Mercantile for the “Christmas Tree Program” festivities. Presents for the kids were stacked under the tree.
A man trying to go outside hopped onto a bench to get around the crowd and accidently bumped the kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling. Burning oil sloshed to the floor and flames quickly spread and people panicked.
Owner of the building Francis Chrisman grabbed the burning lamp and raced for the door, blistering his arms and hands.
People batted the flaming ball with their coats trying to put the fire out, but instead knocked it to the floor, spreading the fire even more.
The terrified guests ran to the only exit — a door that opened inward at the end of a narrow corridor.
The crowd would have jammed the door shut, but Lucinda Schroder wedged her body in, keeping the door open as people stomped over her. Forty-three people died in the tragedy and dozens were badly burned. There would have been more victims except for Lucinda’s heroic act.
It’s not clear how she died — but likely she was trampled to death.
Every family in the area lost at least one of their relatives.
There was one more hero:
Local cowboy Ed O’Farrell jumped onto his horse and galloped in freezing weather to fetch Dr. Bernard Daly at Lakeview, 100 miles away. He got there 19 hours later — about four in the afternoon Christmas Day.
Dr. Daly raced his horse and buggy to the scene, arriving in 13 hours, and saved the lives of all the burn victims except three.
Today, Oregon can add the current “Substation Fire of July 2018” to its history, with thousands of acres already destroyed and at least two casualties:
John Ruby, 64, of Wasco died heroically trying to save his neighbor’s property by creating a fire line with his tractor.
The other victim was the old Charles E. Nelson farmhouse near Dufur 13 miles south of The Dalles.
Standing empty for years in an open wheat field and accompanied by two scraggly trees, the dilapidated 80-year-old farmhouse had been photographed by thousands.
Now all that is left are ashes and scorched wood of the two trees.
Investigators believe it was the work of an arsonist.
The Indians would never have done that.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com. Thanks to Liza Schade, curator, Washington County Museum for research assistance.
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Oregon’s 1845 fire…
“The fire has two areas of historical significance. It’s the first forest fire recorded in Oregon. Evidence of the remnants of thousands of snags killed by the great fire of 1845 can still be found, extending from Tillamook southward 60 miles to Newport and from the westward boundary of the Willamette Valley for 40 miles to the ocean beaches. This encompasses 1,500,000 acres, the largest area of old growth destroyed by a single forest fire in the United States.”
— Weekly Oregonian, Aug. 31, 1894.
“After the first settlers arrived in the early 1800s, smallpox decimated the native people. In 1855, when the Kalapuya and other Northwest tribes ceded their land to the United States government in exchange for other services like education, protection and social services, it is estimated that there were only 600 Kalapuya still living.”
— Washington County Museum
The Biscuit Fire…
The longest burning fire in Oregon history was the Biscuit Fire, named by the U.S. Forest Service after Biscuit Creek in southern Oregon. It started on July 13, 2002, when lightning strikes caused five different blazes in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, eventually becoming one big inferno that burned more than 500,000 acres by November.
“The agent by which fire was first brought down to earth and made available to mortal man was lightning. To this source every hearth owes its flames.”
— Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (50 B.C.)
Lewis and Clark…
“The plains are on fire in view of the fort on both sides of the river, it is said to be common for the Indians to burn the plains near their villages every spring for the benefit of the horse and to induce the Buffalow to come near them.”
— Lewis and Clark Journal (March 30, 1805)
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