Wildfire History: The Tillamook Burn Forest Fire

February 20, 2013

Forest fire photo by Darla Sue Dollman




A steel cable dragging a fallen tree. A burst of wind moving through the forest. These seemingly inconsequential events sparked the first in a series of wildfires that burned a combined total of 355,000 acres and transformed the northern Coast Range Mountains of Oregon into ashy wasteland.

The fires occurred during the Depression, during the collapse of the logging industry. One every six years. According to Introduction to Wildland Fires, they occurred “every six years with eerie regularity,” though no evidence of arson was found.

The true legacy of the fires in the Tillamook Burn is that they eventually led to one of the largest reforestation efforts in the world.

The Gales Creek Canyon Fire of 1933

It was a hot, dry afternoon in Oregon, mid-August, 1933, and a lumbering operation was in progress in Gales Creek Canyon 60 miles west of Portland. According to information obtained from the Oregon Department of State Forestry, the loggers planned to quit early due to increased fire danger. In fact, it is believed that the last tree felled was the tree that started the fire.

A logger’s steel cable was dragging a Douglas fir through the dust. The tree rubbed against the dried bark of a nearby snag—a dead tree–and the snag exploded into flames. A plume of smoke drifted upward, was spotted at the nearby Saddle Mountain tower, and forest crews were sent to assist the lumbermen in extinguishing the blaze.

Damage Assessments of the Gales Creek Canyon Blaze

The fire spread quickly and smoke and ash filled the air, carried by the wind, and fell on ships as far as 500 miles away. The fire burned out of control for weeks and on one afternoon, fire conditions were so severe that the blaze simply exploded in a firestorm, taking on a life of its own. On that day alone, 200,000 acres were destroyed.

According to Tillamook County Online statistics, 239,695 acres of forest land were destroyed in the Gales Creek Canyon Blaze; an estimated 11,828,712,000 board feet of timber. Processed, the lumber would have been valued at 442.4 million dollars.

Although nearly 3000 volunteers worked on the blaze, it is believed that only one life was lost, that of a young man working with the Civilian Conservation Corp. It is impossible to calculate the loss of wildlife.

Subsequent Fires Contribute to the Destruction

Six years later, in 1939, a second fire broke out not far from the location of the first. This fire was also started by a logging operation. Before it was extinguished, the fire traveled over 190,000 acres, some already burned from the first fire.

Exactly six years later, on July 9, 1945, the third fire started, spurring rumors that there was a six year curse on the area.

This was a rather mysterious fire that broke out near Salmonberry River and many of the local residents, having already suffered through years of World War II, speculated that the source of the fire might have been a Japanese incendiary balloon carried up from the coast by the wind.

That same day, a discarded cigarette sparked a second fire near Wilson River and the two fires joined, burning a total of 180,000 acres. The devastation from this fire was still visible along roadsides well into the 1970s. Six years later, in 1951, the final fire started, leaving 32,700 acres of forest land destroyed.

The World’s Largest Reforestation Project

A total of 355,000 acres of forest land was lost to the four fires now called the Tillamook Burn. Many landowners simply abandoned their properties, unable to afford the cost of restoring acres of ashes. When the land was abandoned or taxes unpaid, ownership reverted back to the counties.

In 1939, the Forest Acquisition Act was passed with the goal of encouraging counties to allow the Oregon Department of Forestry to control the land in exchange for timber revenue.

In 1948, Oregon residents voted to rehabilitate the land, authorizing $12 million in bonds. The reforestation project was started the following year using helicopters for the first-ever aerial reseeding.

There was also a tremendous ground effort by forestry employees, prison inmates and even schoolchildren who worked together to hand-plant 72 millions seedlings.

The Tillamook State Forest Today

In 1973, Oregon’s Governor Tom McCall dedicated the land as the Tillamook State Forest. Today, it is maintained by the Oregon Department of Forestry, which oversees habitat, water quality, and timber harvesting used to help fund local schools and county projects. The Tillamook State Forest also has eight campgrounds dedicated to public use.


  •  “1913 Tillamook Fire.” Tillamook State Forest Website. Oregon Department of Forestry. Retrieved March 16, 2010.
  • Pyne, Stephen J., Andrews, Patricia L., Laven, Richard D. Introduction to Wildland Fire. Second Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
  • “The Tillamook Story. ” Oregon.Gov. Oregon Department of Forestry. Retrieved March 16, 2010.
  • Williams, Richard L. The Old West: The Loggers. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976.


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