Tillamook Burn “blew up” with shocking speed
Quick action by state forester Lynn Cronemiller prevented the devastating forest fire from claiming hundreds of lives when a furnace-stoking wind blew in from Eastern Oregon, flogging the fire toward the sea.
By Finn J.D. John — August 3, 2014
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story of Oregon’s Tillamook Burn of 1933 is not what happened, but what didn’t happen.
Three decades before the Tillamook Burn, the wildfire known as the “Yacolt Burn” — really dozens of simultaneous fires all across Oregon and Washington — lit into the states with a savage ferocity and blinding speed. It engulfed whole towns, destroyed sawmills and chased frantic loggers out of doomed camps. And it chased down 35 people and burned them alive.
On the great grim day of Aug. 24, 1933, the Tillamook fire moved with even greater speed, and there were thousands of people — firefighters and residents — at risk of fiery death as it raced down upon them. Yet although one firefighter was killed by a falling tree, not a single person was burned to death in the 1933 blaze.
According to historian Stewart Holbrook, who was there that day, the survivors have Lynn Cronemiller — the chief forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry — to thank for that.
A big fire gets huge
On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 24, 1933, Oregon wildland firefighters weren’t unduly concerned about the large forest fire that was eating into Tillamook and Clatsop counties from the east. It was a big, hairy forest fire, but nothing too out of the ordinary for that time of year. They hoped to contain it within the next day or two at 40,000 acres — a big burn, sure, but all in a day’s work.
By noon, everything had changed, and everyone knew they were dealing with something new — with a half-million-acre fiery monster that would leave its scars on the state for the next hundred years. Already it had a name: The Tillamook Burn.
For many people on the fire lines, the first word of what was to come was a phone call. It was Cronemiller, and he wanted everybody off the fire lines on the west side of the burn — immediately. Then Cronemiller sent drivers racing out through the back roads in the Coast Range west of the fire with orders to get the word to every rancher, woodsman and hiker in the area: Get out. Now.
Their belongings hurriedly stuffed into automobiles and trucks, the residents obeyed, and as they hastened to safety through thickening smoke they found themselves racing with herds of wildlife — deer and elk galloping along the roadway where the going was easiest, heedless of the danger of hunters.
Cronemiller that morning had seen the signs, and knew what they meant. Humidity at 26 percent — almost a record low for the region at daybreak. Little puffs of hot wind coming out of the east and gaining strength as the day continued, bringing air fresh from the sun-baked plains of Central Oregon. And a big, out-of-control forest fire still burning in the crowns of 63 square miles of big old-growth fir trees. The conditions were perfect for a worst-case scenario — what wildland firefighters call a “blow-up” — and if that happened, the fire would move much faster than a fire crew could run. There were by now 3,000 men battling the fire, and most of them were in its path, trying to stop its progress by cutting and digging fire lines. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them would die horribly if they didn’t get out — now.
It happened just a little later that morning.
Fifty miles away in Portland, residents soon were gawking at the massive mushroom-shaped cloud that hung towering over the valley to the east, two miles high and dozens of miles wide.
Beneath that cloud, hurricane-strength winds howled, driven by the intense heat of hundreds of thousands of acres of burning old-growth firs. Whole burning limbs and treetops soared into the sky and were blown toward the sea, where they rained down on beachside communities and fishing boats.
The men weren’t able to do much more than just stay a safe distance away. By that night, the fire was burning more than 270,000 acres and looked to be unstoppable.
But a little later, the hot east wind died down and was replaced with a moist breeze off the ocean — and a fog bank. And with the help of this cloud of moisture, firefighters finally were able to slow the fire’s race to the sea, contain it behind fire lines and bring the fire back down out of the crowns of the trees.
After that day, the fire settled into a slow crawl toward the sea, and firefighters managed to mostly keep it out of the crowns until it was finally stopped for good by the early onset of the fall rains a week or two later.
The Tillamook re-burns: 1939, 1945, 1951
The great fire hadn’t destroyed the trees. It had merely killed them, leaving them standing as massive snags that, each summer, got drier and more flammable.
Knowing what it meant to have a quarter-million acres of kindling sticking up in the air, property owners hastened to get salvage logging under way. But there were a lot of those trees, and the lumber market could only handle so many logs at once. Every fire season came with a fresh set of fears for Oregon foresters.
Conditions came up snake-eyes again in 1939, when another careless logging operation restarted the burn in nearly the same spot as before. By the time this fresh outbreak was done, it had ravaged more than 200,000 acres, mostly among the well-seasoned firewood of the previous burn — although 19,000 acres of fresh green timber was burned over as well.
It happened again in 1945 — two fires covering 182,000 acres, one of them possibly started by a Japanese balloon bomb. People started talking about a six-year jinx. And indeed, 1951 brought with it another fire — but by comparison with the earlier ones, this one was puny at 32,000 acres, and it was the last one.
Restoring a forest
At least a part of the reason the 1951 fire was the last one was the realization of a key insight that the fresh fires made abundantly clear: The forests would have to be replanted. A single forest fire leaves seed cones behind, ready to sprout and grow a new forest; but hit that same area with a second fire six years later, and you’re left with a charred wasteland.
So in 1949, the state government launched a program to plant more than 72 million new trees in the ravaged landscape. By this time most of the burned-over lands had escheated to the government for unpaid property taxes.
In their podcast about the burn, Andy Lindberg and Doug Kenck-Crispin take the provocative position that except for the death and injuries resulting from it, the Tillamook Burn was, on balance, a good thing. They may be right about that. As a result of the fire, vast tracts of privately owned forest became public lands, part of what today is the Tillamook State Forest. Furthermore, the experience of re-seeding those lands (and the example of what happened when they were not re-seeded) inspired many of the modern forestry laws and logging practices that protect us from similar catastrophes today -- catastrophes that, because of the state's higher population density today, would undoubtedly come with a considerably higher body count.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Burning an Empire. New York: Macmillan, 1945; Decker, Doug. “Tillamook Burn,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Kenck-Crispin, Doug, and Lindberg, Andy. “KAOH 7.3: The Tillamook Burn” (podcast), orhistory.com, 8/29/2013)