Yacolt Burn, largest forest fire in recorded Washington history to that point, rages from September 11 to September 13, 1902.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 2/14/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5196

From September 11 to 13, 1902, the Yacolt Burn, the largest forest fire in recorded Washington history to that point (and for more than a century thereafter), destroys 238,920 acres -- more than 370 square miles -- and kills 38 people in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties. The fire is fanned by unusual dry winds from the east and travels 36 miles in 36 hours. There is no organized effort to stop the conflagration, which consumes $30 million in timber -- more than $600 million in 2001 dollars. As many as 80 other fires around the state that summer consume more than 400,000 acres of timber. Rain finally extinguishes the Yacolt Burn.

The causes of the Yacolt Burn were never firmly established. The origin was variously recorded as the Wind River Valley, the Washougal River Valley, along the Lewis River, and at Star Mountain. Loggers burning logging slash, logging operations, and farmers burning to clear land were common causes of fires.

Horace Wetherall was the only forest ranger employed in the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. He had recently been reprimanded for employing a fire crew and he was reluctant to be disciplined again. When he spotted the fire, he took no action to battle the blaze. Dry winds from Eastern Washington carried the fire west and north, darkening the sky. A steamboat on the Columbia River had to use a searchlight to navigate. Local residents feared an eruption of Mount St. Helens or Mount Rainier. Smoke reached Seattle and Astoria.

In 1902, there was no organized system for wildfire fighting, so residents and loggers just fled. The flames reached the town of Yacolt, then turned north. Homes, churches, barns, and livestock were lost. At least 146 families were left homeless. Troops from Vancouver Barracks helped evacuate residents.

Logger Monroe Vallett was charged with starting the fire on Nelson Creek east of Stevenson. He was acquitted when fearful witnesses refused to testify against him.

In 1903, the State Legislature established a state fire warden. In 1908, private landowners formed the Washington Fire Protection Association and funded a system of fire wardens and a program of fire prevention on private lands. In 1910, the U.S. Forest Service began to organize a program of wildfire suppression on public lands.

More than 111 years after the Yacolt Burn, the 2014 Carlton Complex fire in Okanogan County surpassed it as the largest wildfire, in acreage consumed, in Washington's recorded history. (In 2015 another fire complex, the Okanogan Complex, was reported to have surpassed the Carlton Complex in acreage, but the fires forming the Okanogan Complex did not end up merging into a single huge fire, as the Carlton Complex fires had, and were ultimately recorded as two separate fires, so the 2014 blaze remained the state's largest single wildfire.)

Sources: Charles S. Cowan, The Enemy is Fire!: The History of Forest Protection In the Big Timber Country (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1961);  Rick McClure, U.S. Forest Service, "The Yacolt Burn," The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Website (www.columbiagorge.org/yacolt.htm); Edwin Van Syckle, They Tried To Cut It All: Grays Harbor... Turbulent Years of Greed and Greatness (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1980), 192-195; Joseph O'Sullivan, "Crews Hunker Down for the Long Haul," The Seattle Times, July 22, 2014, pp. A-1 and A-6; Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lightning storms ignite Okanogan Complex fires, which will soon grow into some of the biggest in Washington's worst-ever wildfire year, on August 14, 2015." (by Jim Kershner), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 19, 2016).
Note: This essay was updated on July 22, 2014, and corrected on April 19, 2016.

Related Topics:   Calamities | Environment | Forests

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