Little Bits of History

Burn, Baby, Burn

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 14, 2013
A view of the fires from an airplane

A view of the fires from an airplane

August 14, 1933: The first of four separate forest fires begins to burn. Loggers were working in Gales Creek Canyon in the Coast Range mountains west of Portland, Oregon. The old-growth forest was being logged when a steel chain used for dragging a cut Douglas fir caused enough friction to ignite a fire. The chain rubbed against the dry bark of a wind-felled tree and the flames spread quickly, changing the lush forest into a vast wasteland.

The first of the four fires burned 240,000 acres before the seasonal fall rains finally extinguished the blaze on September 5. The smoke and ashes settled into neighboring valleys and even reached ships 500 miles out to sea. Nearly 12 billion board feet of timber was destroyed resulting in ≈ $442.4 million (≈ $7 billion in 2009 USD) in damages. The devastating financial loss was intensified by a world economy suffering from the Great Depression. Salvage operations began immediately to try to harvest useable wood. Only one life was lost to the terrible inferno.

Another fire began in 1939 and was again caused by logging. This involved 190,000 acres, some of it previously burned forest. A third fire was started by a discarded cigarette on July 9, 1945. The fire began near the Salmonberry River and destroyed 180,000 acres. This fire was closer to civilization and the scars remained visible from major highways into the 1970s. The last fire burned in 1951 and covered 33,000 acres. A total of 355,000 acres of forest burned. The fires destroyed over 13 billion board feet with 7.1 billion board feet of that salvaged.

A massive reforestation project turned the barren landscape once again into lush green mountains. The Oregon State Legislature narrowly passed a bond issue to finance the project in 1948. On July 18, 1973 (24 years to the date of the bond levy passage) the region was dedicated by Governor Tom McCall as the Tillamook State Forest. Today, a $10.7 million Tillamook Forest Center is open to visitors year round. They offer a range of educational programs as well as a scenic and peaceful respite.

“A forest of these trees is a spectacle too much for one man to see.” – David Douglas

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“A woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart.” – Hal Borland

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” – Smokey the Bear

This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Wildfires have been with the world long before mankind entered the picture. There is evidence of a fire in the Welsh Borders dating from 420 million years ago (and leaving the fossil remains of plants turned to charcoal). Of course, humans can and have contributed to present day fires. Deforestation and climate change are a couple of major contributing factors. Then there is the hazard of sparks caused by human endeavors, as listed above, and part of the problem with early steam engines and trains running through the old forests. Fire prevention is imperative as these wildfires quickly spread and are difficult to bring under control and extinguish. The largest North American wildfire on record took place in British Columbia and Alberta and consumed 3,500,000 (possibly as much as 4,200,000) acres in 1950. The Chinchanga fire began on June 1 in the sparsely populated area. No deaths were attributed to the fire before it was put out in September of that year.

Also on this day: Literally – In 1457, the first exactly dated book is published.
Insecure – In 1935, the Social Security Act was signed into law.
Oregon, More than a Trail – In 1848, the Territory of Oregon was established.

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