May 02, 2011

When Washington State Burned

What was the largest forest fire in Washington State history?

When Mark Twain visited Olympia in August of 1895, he commented wryly about the smoke-choked town: “I regret to see – I mean to learn – I can’t see, of course, for the smoke – that your magnificent forests are being destroyed by fire. As for the smoke, I do not mind. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”
A few short years later, his comments might have been met with silence rather than laughter, as Washington State had suffered its worst wildfire—the Yacolt Burn of 1902.  Before the flames were doused by rain, almost 239,000 acres had been charred, 12 billion board feet of lumber consumed, and at least 38 people had lost their lives.
Native peoples had long set small fires to herd game, encourage the growth of plants needed for food and medicines, and improve grazing. Stories of the “Big Fire” circa 1800, which was credited with burning a half million acres, were already being told long before settlers began to arrive. The settlers and loggers used “clearing” and “slashing” fires much more extensively than ever before. Though the cause of the Yacolt fire was never pinpointed, these practices were more than likely culprits.
The first plume of smoke was spotted by the single ranger at work in the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve on September 11, 1902. He essentially ignored it; there was no organized system in place to fight wildfires.
Strong, hot winds from Eastern Washington soon fanned the flames into a wall of fire that raced forward, driving all before it: Native Americans, settlers, loggers, farmers, livestock and wild animals alike. In 30 hours, it covered 36 miles. The blackened sky convinced some terrified witnesses that a volcano was erupting; smoke darkened the air from Seattle to Astoria.
Photo of the fire's aftermath, ca. 1908.  Courtesy of UW Libraries, Special Collections Division

After it was over, the little town of Yacolt was still standing, but blistered paint on many buildings told of how close the call had come. 
In the smoky aftermath, the Yacolt Burn disaster focused attention on the need for fire protection for America’s wild and private lands. Washington State was quick to appoint its first  fire warden the very next year, and the National Forest Service was founded not long after to look after our treasured forests.  

We thank James Agee, Professor Emeritus, Forest Ecology and Fire Ecology in the University of Washington's School of Forest Resources for his assistance with this blog.

The Burke Museum partners with the Seattle PI's Big Blog to answer commonly asked questions about the natural and cultural history of our region. This post originally appeared on the Big Blog on April 30. 
Got a question to Ask the Burke? Send it here!

Posted by: Peg Boettcher, Communications