When haze covers Portland, and the entire Willamette Valley begins to feel like the side of the campfire that makes your eyes burn, the reality of forests ablaze hits home. We go from simply watching or hearing news of fire-fighter fatalities and destroyed property, to actually experiencing the devastation in a small way ourselves.
And while we’re cursing the scorched woods for ruining our hiking and other outdoor pursuits, it’s a prime time to learn more about the phenomenon. While it’s true that wildfire is simply a fact of life on earth, it’s also true that humans have a lot to do with the intensity we’ve been experiencing for the past three centuries.
A case in point is the infamous Yacolt Burn of 1902. That year, from Sept. 8th – 12th, a monstrous fire scorched the Lewis River Valley, Wind River Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. It killed dozens, including 18 in the Gorge alone. Humans, deer, bears, and others fled to stream-beds for safety as the sky went dark. Some feared it was a volcanic eruption. As it progressed, a half inch of ash rained down on Portland, and in distant Seattle, they lit street lights to help navigate the mid-day haze. Ships wrapped in smoke on the Columbia were forced to navigate by compass.
Ironically, the word “yacolt” is Klickitat, and means “haunted valley,” or “place of evil spirits,” fitting for a blaze so bizarre that it even jumped the half-mile wide Columbia River. Rather than being the work of evil spirits though, this demonic burn was more likely a human creation.
Though the fire’s origin is debated, one account says it all began with two boys burning a nest of yellow jackets at Eagle Creek, on the Oregon side of the Gorge. From there, according to this claim, it raged up and down the south side of the Columbia, before jumping the river at Cascade Locks and heading north. All told, it covered 30 miles in just 36 hours.
Regardless of how it began though, one thing is certain. It would never have gotten so ferocious and caused such devastation, without the logging industry.
In the two years preceding the burn, loggers had left slash piles scattered across the land. These were huge stacks of dead, dry, highly flammable wood, that they were supposed to routinely burn in a controlled manner. Abandoned, they became fuel instead for the Yacolt fire, enabling its intensity and spread.
Yet even without them, northwest woods were primed for a wicked blaze. It was a catastrophe decades in the making. Logging, even by 1902, had irreparably altered the landscape, and created the conditions for the mega fires of today, and a basic understanding of the life of a forest reveals why.
When a forest is new (in a natural setting this might happen after a volcanic eruption, landslide, etc.), thousands of tiny trees spring up and compete for limited sunlight, water, and nutrients. As they grow though, the forest thins. Most of the trees begin to whither, while the strongest get larger, and as the small trees die, they fall and begin to nourish the forest floor. The living trees meanwhile continue to compete, and the space between the survivors increases. Eventually the canopies of these large trees begin to blot out sunlight, preventing thick underbrush below.
As this is happening, occasional lightning-caused fires sweep through and burn what remains of the small trees that didn’t make it, but don’t gain enough intensity to kill the largest, strongest trees. Eventually, when the forest is fully mature, a process that in all honesty, takes several centuries, it’s fairly fire-resistant. The small trees and the majority of burnable brush are long gone, and the large trees are widely spaced, with branches that sometimes don’t begin for a hundred feet from the forest floor. Then, when a fire sweeps through, it has its work cut out if it wants to burn for very long.
Logging, as you might guess, throws these natural processes out the window. When forests are harvested, the largest, most fire-resistant trees (which are the most valuable) are cut first, and then the forest is never left to fully mature again. Instead, cut areas are generally left littered with unwanted wood, which dries and cures in the sun, while simultaneously new generations of saplings (and/or underbrush) spring up (and/or are planted). Then when the next fire comes along, it has fields of easily burnable material to feed on, and no giants to slow it down.
And once an area is harvested, it’s almost a given that it will be again when the new trees are large enough. Yet, even if left to recover for decades, the damage has been done. For as long as humans are intent on “managing” it, and increasing the number of fires that hit it (accidental human caused fires), it will never fully regain the natural resiliency it once had.
Prior to European settlement of North America and subsequent logging, the continent’s forests had largely matured. That is, over at least hundreds (but usually thousands) of years, they’d reached relative stability. While forest fires routinely occurred, they weren’t as likely to be as devastating, thanks to the characteristics of true old-growth.
The Yacolt Burn had such ferocity, only because by 1902, very little true old-growth existed anywhere (that was at all accessible) in the Gorge. Logging had started in earnest in the first decades of the 19th century, and by the time of the Yacolt fire, the forests consisted primarily of 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th or 5th generation trees. When compared to the ancient forest that had existed here for thousands of years prior, it had become a matchbox waiting to be lit.
Fast forward to today. While originally, lightning-caused fires played an important, healthy role in mature North American forests, the blazes now (more often than not human-started) rage out of control. They burn with unnatural intensity and occur far more frequently. They damage property, consume massive resources to fight, and contribute to climate change by releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s something to consider the next time a politician or forest manager argues to increase timber harvests, or open up more areas to logging. There’s a consequence to everything.