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Town destroyed by its founder's favorite garden shrub

Gorse reminded Irishman Lord George Bennett of home, so he planted it when he founded the Oregon seaside town of Bandon; years later, the gorse destroyed the city in a fiery cataclysm.

Man pretending to ride a burned-up bicycle in the ruins of Bandon, 1936
A survivor pretends to ride a burned-up bicycle near the ruins of a
house and car, in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed almost all of
Bandon in 1936. (Gerald R. Williams Collection, OSU Archives)

When Lord George Bennett founded the little town of Bandon on the very western rim of Oregon in 1873, he must have been pining for his native Ireland. It was from Ireland that Bennett imported both the name of his new home town — and an ornamental shrub that would one day destroy it.

The shrub is called gorse. If you’ve driven much along the Oregon Coast you’ll have noticed it; it’s increasingly dominant as you approach Bandon from the north or south, displacing the native salal plants with their waxy dark-green leaves and bland-tasting purple berries. It’s usually in the form of a chest-high gray-green mass, sometimes speckled with little yellow flowers like those of Scotch Broom. Its leaves are protected by a tangle of low-grade prickles, like those on a thistle.

But it’s not for its prickles that the stuff is feared in Oregon. It’s for its love of fire.

The phoenix plant: Born to burn

Gorse is a plant that’s made to burn. It’s happiest in an environment that burns fiercely every few decades. When a good hot fire sweeps a hillside clean, gorse’s specialty is being the first green thing to return to the scene. Its charred-off roots start sprouting new growth as soon as things are cool again, and its seed pods, lying on the ground, are cracked open by the fire and soon get busy sprouting.

Burned-out cars on the beach after the 1936 Bandon fire
Bandon residents drove their cars out onto the beach as far as they could
go in an attempt to save them from the flames; however, it wasn't far
enough. (Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry)

To encourage these periodic fires and to help them get hot enough to kill competing plants, gorse secretes oils in its leaves that burn like diesel fuel. Sometimes in hot weather oil actually drips from them.

In other words, gorse is a phoenix plant that yearns for its own destruction so that it can rise from the ashes and take over.

Which appears to have been its plan, if a plant can be said to have a plan, on Sept. 26, 1936.

The Doomsday Shrub's big day

In the 63 years that had passed since Bennett brought gorse to Bandon, the stuff had spread everywhere. Gorse seemed to really like Bandon. Gorse hedges and thickets were all over the town, and vacant lots were stuffed with it — four feet high and too thick to walk through.

On this particular day, a couple slash burns from nearby logging operations got out of control, and a small forest fire ensued. Although the day was uncommonly dry and warm, the fire would ordinarily not have been that big a deal. It might have claimed a house or two on the edge of town, but Bandon had — as was about to become clear — a crack fire department; it should have been OK.

But once the forest fire got into the gorse thickets at the edge of town, there was no stopping it.

Writer Stewart Holbrook, who happened to be on the scene when it happened, describes how this worked: “A stray spark would fall in a green clump of gorse near a house. An instant later the gorse was flaming higher than the house. In another instant the house was wholly on fire. Time and again it happened.”

Like squirting water on a grease fire

The firefighters found that large patches of burning gorse behaved differently than did the smaller fires they were used to. Squirting water on it was like throwing water on a grease fire in the kitchen — all it did was spread flaming, oily globs everywhere.

Many of the townspeople were at first reluctant to leave; they were having trouble believing they were in real danger. When the fire came over the hill and started advancing on them, though, they jammed themselves into the streets and headed for the beach. The Coast Guard ferried hundreds across the Coquille River to the dunes on the other side. The firefighters covered their retreat until the tires of the fire truck melted, effectively immobilizing it; at that point, they too fled to the beach, where townspeople with their backs to the sea knelt behind driftwood logs charred and smoking from the heat, heaping sand over them in an effort to keep them from burning.

In the end, 10 people died, several of them in the act of trying to retrieve treasured objects from their homes.

Out of some 500 buildings and homes in Bandon, just 16 remained in salvageable condition.

Bandon today

Today, Bandon has rebuilt itself, and enough years have passed since 1936 for the town to have reacquired an old-seaside-town charm. The majority of the visitors strolling through during the summer season have no idea they’re walking on land that their grandparents would have experienced as a charred wasteland.

And yes, there’s still gorse in Bandon, although the city code now includes strict regulations on it. It’s simply become too common to eradicate. But most Bandon residents will never look at it the same way again, and they’ll never feel quite the same way about their founder, Bennett — who gave the town life and nearly brought it death.

(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks (ed. Brian Booth). Corvallis: OSU Press, 1992; Howard, Bob. “Memories of the Bandon Fire,” Bandon Western World, Sept. 30, 2008; www.ohs.org; www.ci.bandon.or.us; Oregon Department of Forestry)