Last month I was visiting family in Fairbanks, Alaska. On the way there, as the plane approached the airport, we were greeted with the haze of forest fire smoke all around the Tanana Valley. There are many forest fires every year in Alaska. You’d think at that rate that there would be nothing left to burn. The first week of June was early for forest fire activity, but they had had a dry winter and spring, and recent rainstorms with thunder and lightning.
[Photo from here].
It reminded me of some accounts of catastrophic wildfires in the early days of Lincoln County noted in the oral history records (the following excerpts are from the Oral History Collections of the Lincoln County Historical Society). One large fire raged through the area in 1868, shortly after the Siletz Reservation (originally larger than all of Lincoln County) was first opened for white settlement. Floyd “Bush” Davis describes his family’s experience during that fire at their homestead at the mouth of Beaver Creek.
“My uncle [Lemuel Davis], dad’s oldest brother, came to South Beach in 1866, and built a home there and filed on the mouth of Beaver Creek, which is now Ona Park. And my father was here in 68 with him, when a big fire came through. The fire had jumped the bay from my Aunt Mary’s place, they were forced to go right down on the ocean beach, next to the breakers, to get away from the smoke and the heat. And they mixed up with all kinds of wild animals, who were also mixed down there.”
----Floyd “Bush” Davis (1967 Interview)
Another account of the same fire was given by Cliff Phelps. He heard about the great wildfire from several elderly Siletz Native women’s accounts told to him as a child. I have seen early photos of homesteads from other parts of the county showing charred trees in the background.
[On stump removal] “But you know, these meadows was just a little patch here and there. There was dead old snags laying in there when the big fire went through here you know. God, we sure done a lot of work here. In them days, why we’d dig out the stumps, you know...well, we dug around there with the team and haul them out someplace and worked them up...My Dad and I done a lot of that kind of work in the wintertime.”
“There was quite a lot of old growth firs in them days. They were no doubt the same age as the ones that got burnt. They didn’t do a clean job of burning when this country was all burned you know, that all happened, of course, years before we came here. When we came here [in 1908] there was real elderly women (I don’t know if there was any men or not), Indians in the Siletz, that could remember when that burn happened. They said the ocean was just full of all kinds of animals, they were all in there together, you know. It was so hot and so much smoke, and it just drove them to the ocean, and I suppose a lot of them never did get there. But it went through this whole country, you know, it was just covered. There was more so, when we moved here with these big, burnt snags, some of them were solid, any of them that were solid made good wood. But, oh God, the whole country here for miles in every direction except out over the ocean, had been hit by the fire. There was an awful lot of talk about it when we came here, but you know, I was just a kid. I never paid much attention. But it sure as heck happened all right. I remember that much about it.”
----Cliff Phelps (1977 interview)
Bob Zybach wrote about the historic incidences and uses of wildfire in his Ph.D. dissertation in 2003 (entitled, “The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951”), and in a 1994 interview published in Evergreen magazine (“Voices in the Forest: An interview with Bob Zybach,” Evergreen magazine, March/April 1994).
Drawing from many sources, such as historic accounts, maps, and analysis of tree growth rings and vegetation distribution, Zybach compiled vast amounts of data to support his conclusions. He argued that the modern view of how forests appeared in the past is flawed. A popular assumption is that when white settlement began in Western Oregon, the area was covered with a “sea of old growth” (which he defined as stands of Douglas fir trees containing 60-70 % of trees that were 200 or more years old). Zybach states instead that the 200+ year old Douglas fir trees probably covered more like 5-38 %. He described the forests of the mid-1800’s as being more open than they are now, and free of the underbrush and woody debris seen in coastal forests today. “There were islands of even-aged conifers, bounded by prairies, savannas, groves of oak, meadows, ponds, thickets, and berry patches.” He attributes this to the local Native American use of fire for managing natural resources. “Indians used fire to create habitat for wildlife, to clear away trees and underbrush, and to shape forest in the image of their own culture.”
Several major catastrophic fires occurred from 1849 to 1951 in the Coast Range region. Zybach defined catastrophic fires as those extending 100,000 acres or more. From the historic and scientific evidence he examined, Zybach states that catastrophic fires were rarer before white settlement occurred. He attributes this to the changes in the use and management of the land and natural resources. The biggest fires occurred in August or September in years of prolonged drought.
“Between 1840 and 1850 an abrupt transformation took place in western Oregon that resulted in permanent and large-scale changes to the region’s forest and grassland environments. During that decade dozens of local American Indian nations and tribes were all but replaced by a comparatively homogenous population of European American immigrants. Many wildlife species were subsequently decimated and extirpated in favor of domesticated plants and animals...Even fire was affected. Expansive grasslands that were annually fired to produce and harvest food crops were plowed and grazed instead. Interior forestland trails, prairies, meadows, brakes, and berry patches--created and maintained by fire--were abandoned and began converting to trees. Near the end of the decade, probably in 1849 or 1850, the first of a century-long series of catastrophic forest fires took place in the region. These wildfires were so large and notable they became known as the ‘Great Fires’ and acquired individual names: the Yaquina, the Coos, the Nestucca, the Tillamook.”
----Bob Zybach, 2003 Ph.D. dissertion cited above
In an Appendix to Zybach’s work is an account of the Great Yaquina Fire of 1849. It is told by William Smith, an Alsi Indian man, who told this story in his native language to anthropologist Leo Frachtenberg in 1910. Mr. Smith’s family (7 adults, 8 children) was returning to the Alsea River area from a trip to the Siuslaw. They got as far as Heceta Head when the story begins.
“Then it seemed to be getting dark all over...We kept going. Although the sun stood high, nevertheless it threatened to get dark...And then darkness fell all over the world. The surface of the sun just kept on getting red...The fire seemed to be flying in all directions as soon as darkness enveloped the world...its crackling just seemed to make a roaring noise...All sorts of (animals) were coming to the sea: elks, black bears, and cougars--the hair of all (of them) was just partially burned...The fire was just terribly hot. The smell of the smoke made an awful odor all over...For probably ten days it was dark all over. [Finally they were able to return home]. Nobody was burned: all the people are well. Nature (seems to have been) doing its worst thing. Never (before) did nature act like that.”
It is predicted that the first Yaquina fire of 1849 burned 500,000 acres and the second Yaquina fire in 1868 consumed 300,000 acres, some of the largest of the Great Fires. (This link describes forest fires and their effects on populated areas of some more recent fires). I don’t know much about forest management or predictions for that type of catastrophic fire to recur here in the future. I merely present these stories as vivid historic experiences of the landscape of this region, and as examples of how these and other events have shaped the way the land now appears.
Posted by jackie.