Tillamook Burn sprang from gamble
By Finn J.D. John
The morning of August 14, 1933, was a morning to break a gyppo logger’s heart.
It was clear, warm and dry — the kind of weather that shuts down logging operations long before quitting time. A warm, dry breeze was blowing out of the northeast. The woods crackled like dry tinder under the loggers’ caulks.
As they’d known it would, the day got hotter. By noon, Gales Creek Canyon, near Forest Grove, was starting to empty out as logging operations knocked off for the day, heading back to their bunkhouses to wait for the dew of the next morning to make the woods safe again.
All but one operation, that is. One lone logging crew, situated at the end of a spur line on a log deck surrounded by mountains of slash, decided to stick it out for just a few more hours, try to get one last rail car loaded and on its way out of the woods, before quitting for the day.
It was an old-school high-lead steam-powered dragline logging show, of course; it was, after all, the early 1930s. They were using a steam “donkey engine” to yard the sticks to the landing by brute grinding force. That friction generated heat — lots of it — and it was not uncommon to see the logs smoking a little when they arrived at the landing to be loaded. The loggers kept their shovels and pickaxes ready, smothering small fires when they broke out — which they occasionally did. It was all in a day’s work, and ordinarily nothing much to worry about. But today was different, and they must have known it. They were taking a huge chance for those extra logs — a high-stakes gamble.
Around 1 p.m., they lost their bet. Grinding across a well-seasoned cedar snag, the big log they were yarding started smoking and then suddenly the pulverized cedar punkwood was on fire. A thin line of white smoke went up, thickening quickly as the shout rang out: “Fire!”
All thought of the partly-empty rail car vanished as the loggers sprinted, shovels in hand, to try to undo what their foolishness had wrought. But it was too late. They had no water, the forest was too dry and there weren’t enough of them — and the acres of slash piles guaranteed the fire would get a grand start.
They had lighted off the first Tillamook Burn, and Oregon would never be the same again.
“The Tillamook Fire took the life out of twelve and one-half billion feet of fine old timber,” wrote author Holbrook, a onetime logger and one of the firefighters who battled it. “I saw it burn, and I never expect to see another sight like it.”
As the unlucky loggers toiled away with their shovels and picks, desperately trying to slow the fire’s spread, they had no way of knowing what kind of evil genie they had let loose upon the land. In Oregon and Washington at the time, the gold standard of bad forest fires was set in 1902, when a bone-dry early September saw hundreds of fast-moving fires break out all over the two states.
In Washington, dozens of people died, chased down and roasted alive by the leaping flames. It was known as the Yacolt Burn; it killed 38 people and half a million acres of virgin old-growth timber, and it dusted Portland with a half-inch layer of ash and soot.
The fire that was breaking out would soon rival the Yacolt Burn in size and ferocity — but, happily, not in fatalities.
One of the legacies of the Yacolt Burn (and a subsequent big blow-up in Idaho and Montana in 1910) was a network of U.S. Forest Service lookout towers situated in strategic spots around the state, from which lonely watchers kept an eye on the surrounding forest, looking for smoke. Shortly after 1 p.m., the watcher on Saddle Mountain noticed a thin smudge rising from near Gales Creek, and got on the telephone to report it.
As a result, within minutes reinforcements were racing to the scene. By late afternoon, hundreds of men were swarming over the fire, including the exhausted loggers — whose superhuman efforts to quell the fire they had loosed is probably the reason they are never mentioned by name in any source I have been able to find.
Then, at 6 p.m., word came that another fire had broken out a little way downwind from the Gales Creek burn. The dry whipping wind had picked up a burning branch and carried it a mile or two before dropping it south of Wilson River Road.
Crews were brought in from everywhere to fight the blaze — loggers, professional firefighters, Civilian Conservation Corps crew members, anyone who could help.
They felled trees to form fire breaks, dug broad firelines to hem the blaze in.
Progress was swift, the wind was calming down, and by Sunday morning — Aug. 20 — firefighters were thinking it would soon be over.
Then the wind picked back up. By now the fire was blazing in the crowns of the trees, so it moved from tree to tree as swiftly as the wind. It leaped the laboriously-cleared fire breaks with heartbreaking ease and rocketed on, ever westward, eating into the biggest great tract of roadless old-growth timber in the Coast Range.
The crews redoubled their efforts. New, broader fire lines were cut. They hoped to quarantine the fire at roughly 40,000 acres. By Thursday, Aug. 24, they dared hope this would work; the wind had died down again, humidity was up, and the firebreaks were broad and clear.
The next day, though, something happened. Humidity plummeted. At daybreak the humidity was a shockingly low 26 percent. Tentative gusts of wind coming out of the east — from over the Eastern Oregon high desert — told Oregon state forester Lynn Cronemiller what had happened, and what was about to happen, and what he needed to do if they were going to avoid an even bigger body count than had been seen in 1902.
We’ll talk about what Cronemiller did, and what his actions saved dozens of people from, next week.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Burning an Empire. New York: Macmillan, 1945; Decker, Doug. “Tillamook Burn,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; “U.S. Forest Service History,” foresthistory.org)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Library of Congress. The smoke plume from the Tillamook Burn as seen from an aircraft, in August 1933.
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