Recurrent fires in the Tillamook Forest started 81 years ago

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - The Tillamook Forest Center, located along the Wilson River Highway 29 miles west of Forest Grove, curates much of the history of the northern Coast Range landscape. Its also the site of several programs this month observing another anniversary of the Tillamook Burn, a series of fires that started in 1933.It took one spark to start the series of fires that would burn down 355,000 acres of forest land.

It took 24 years, thousands of people and a few helicopters to bring it back.

The Tillamook Forest Center’s annual Return from the Burn event Aug. 15-17 will celebrate and teach visitors about the transformation of a vast tree graveyard into a healthy forest through the sheer determination of the people of northwest Oregon.

With extra funding this year, the event will feature even more family-friendly activities, including a steam-donkey presentation, a toy-parachute-dropping contest from the center’s lookout tower and music by the band Timberbound.

It was a hot August day in 1933 when the manager of Crossett and Western told his loggers to stop work early. But the crew in Gales Creek Canyon didn’t hear the order. As they were dragging in a final log, it rubbed against another, sparking to life the first in a series of devastating fires.

LaWanda Hitt was born in Vernonia six days after the fire started. She was placed in a box with a wet cheesecloth over her head and hidden away from the smoky fumes under a bed.

She remembers her mother recounting how it always looked like twilight and large ashes fell from the sky like snowflakes. Ash was found on ships 500 miles off the Oregon coast.

Every six years after that until 1951, another fire blazed, aided by the dry, dead tree trunks left from previous fires. The collection of fires in 1933, 1939, 1945 and 1951 became known as “the six-year jinx.”

Hitt, who grew up watching the blazes devour the forest, remembers the sound. “We were a long ways from it, but you could hear this roar like a hundred birds or bees,” she said in an oral history provided by the Tillamook Forest Center. “You could hear the trees crack and snap and pop.”Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: MAXINE LEACH - This photo from 1959 shows a Boy Scout and parent helper from Portland replanting an area of the Tillamook Burn just past the summit of Highway 6 near the north fork of the Wilson River.

Her father worked in a mill but also helped fight the fires. She remembers stories he told her of seeing deer, bears and other animals hiding together from the fire in the creek.

Between the four fires, the amount of timber burned could have created 1 million homes — so their presence hurt the local timber economy. Counties started foreclosing on land in 1937, with landowners abandoning hundreds of thousands of acres of worthless property as the years passed.

The Forest Acquisition Act of 1939 encouraged counties to deed foreclosed land to the state, creating today’s state forest system. In exchange, they received revenues from forest sales.

Loggers learned they could salvage some of the dead trees and sell unscathed wood inside the trunk’s charred casing. Sixty percent of these “snags” were salvaged, which had the added benefits of preventing future fires and preparing the land for reforestation.

By 1951, the well-practiced firefighters had felled so many snags and gotten so good at quickly mobilizing equipment to control the blazes that they stopped the fire at 32,000 acres and ended the six-year cycle.

Forests damaged by fires are often allowed to grow back naturally, but because multiple fires had destroyed seed sources, the state helped fund tree replanting with $12 million in bonds. In the 1950s, work crews replanted the forest with help from volunteers, including children from schools and churches.

Hitt was one of them, never dreaming she’d see it grow back in her lifetime.

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - A canopy of fir trees has grown up in the Tillamook Forest where charred stumps once were after wildfires in 1933, 1939, 1945 and 1951 devastated 355,000 acres.Denise Berkshire, lead education and interpretation specialist at the Tillamook Forest Center, hopes visitors will be able to appreciate the reforestation efforts of the past, because they allow the recreational activities of today — and also return two-thirds of logging revenue to Washington and Tillamook counties.

This year’s celebration will make use of extra dollars from the Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust, which will help pay for Timberbound and a presentation of an old steam-donkey, a logging machine that helped put logs on trucks or railcars.

The center is also partnering with Tillamook County Museum’s “A Step Back in Time,” which gives visitors access to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center, the Garibaldi Maritime museum, the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad and the Old Iron Show for $15. Admission to the Tillamook Forest Center is always free, so guests who just want to visit the center can do so.

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