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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 6, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Revisiting the Tillamook Burn

During the Pacific Northwest fire season, the headlines most often are grabbed by the blazes that break out each summer in the dry-side forests east of the Cascades. But the dank wet forests of the west side also have a history of fire. These fires typically break out at longer intervals than on the east side, and often have been helped along by humans.

In the 20th century, one of the worst west side fires broke in the Oregon Coast Range as a logger’s steel cable chafed against some dry tinder during an August day in 1933. Amid unseasonably hot weather that pushed the air temperature above 100 degrees, the fire spread into a massive conflagration fueled by the some of the most productive timber lands in the world.

The fire raged through cut-over forests and old growth, including trees that had stood for more than four centuries. By the time the flames ebbed, the fire had destroyed some 12.5 billion board feet of timber (enough to build more than 1 million homes) and sent ashes raining out on ships several hundred miles out at sea.

This was the first in a series of fires that flared in the Oregon coast range over an 18-year period, and collectively would become known as the Tillamook burn.

Here are some photos from these fires.

In 1948, Oregon author Stewart Holbrook, found this Coast Range burn zone “as somber a sight as to be viewed this side of the Styx. There they stand millions of ghostly firs, now stark against the sky, which were green as the sea and twice as handsome.”

To try to heal this bruised land, Oregonians — contractors, prison crews and even school children — took to the coast range to plant tens of millions of trees. And over the decades, they took hold and grew in a formidable example of the regenerative powers of the Pacific Northwest rain forests.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I spent a long afternoon revisiting the Tillamook burn on a hike near the crest of the Coast Range summit. The trail passed through groves of fir mixed with spindly, moss-draped maples, and patches of alder in the lower moist areas along the creeks. All of the forest had been amply thinned, so lots of sunshine got through the canopy to sustain a verdant understory that included waist-high ferns, Oregon grape, trillium, salmonberry, huckleberry and other foliage for wildlife.

I still could find plenty of signs of the old burn, such as the scorch marks on some of the huge decaying stumps from the bygone forest

As this new forest — now known as the Tillamook State Forest — has reclaimed the mountain sides, there has been plenty of debate about how this land should be managed. What has emerged is very much a working forest.

There is logging, a mixture of thinning, patch and clear cuts, all of which help raise money for Oregon schools and counties

There also is plenty of recreation.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, day trippers swarmed to swimming holes and RVers surged into campgrounds. I could hear the shots from what sounded like a semi-automatic weapons wielded by a gun enthusiasts, and the forest also draws quad and dirt-bike riders who were buzzing about the back country.

I ventured out along what is known as the Historic Hiking Loop, a series of trails that make up an 8.6-mile circuit that hikers share with bikers and horseback riders. The loop begins at Rogers Camp just past Milepost 33 of Oregon State Highway 6

The trails often intersects the routes used by off-road vehicles, so you have be sure to look both ways before you scramble across these paths to the other side of the trails. Within a few minutes time, however, you are back within that deep green canopy of the post-burn forest.

Comments | Topics: Tillamook Burn and Tillamook State Forest


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