Forest Fire in Washington State

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 8/01/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5496

Despite the rainy reputation of the Pacific Northwest, fire has figured prominently in the natural and economic history of the region. Fire was once a natural part of the environment, and Native Americans used it in their quest for survival. But settlers and their descendants regarded fire as the enemy of the forests that generated so many jobs and that symbolized the Evergreen State. Fire suppression became the goal. This changed by the 1970s. Foresters demonstrated that policies of aggressive suppression had actually been detrimental to forest health and productivity. By the end of the twentieth century, federal land managers employed prescribed burning to replicate the historic role of fire in forest ecosystems and to reduce the amount of fuel that had built up over decades of preventing forest fires.

Before the arrival of settlers in the early nineteenth century, fire visited Northwest forests from two sources -- natural causes such as lightning and Native Americans. Lightning insured that regular, low-intensity fires swept forests and prairies, which needed fire to open seed cones and to clear competing species. These fires crawled slowly through brush and dried needles and leaves without doing serious damage to larger trees or to wildlife.

The natives used fire to hunt game, to clear land for gathering food, and even for war. The extent of burning depended upon the tribe and the region. Early explorers documented forest fires and smoke as regular features of the dry seasons. Some of these natural fires burned millions of acres.

Settlers logged off the forests to market the timber and to clear the way for farms and towns. As loggers reached deeper into the woods with steam locomotives and donkey engines, smokestacks often spread sparks that ignited fires. Loggers and farmers fought the fires as best they could, but most people just got out of the way and abandoned their equipment and buildings to the flames.

As the logging and milling became a mainstay of the Northwest economy, fire was measured in its impact on business. In 1902, a catastrophic fire in Southwest Washington called the Yacolt Burn killed 38 people and burned timber worth as much as $30 million (in 1902 dollars).

In 1908, timber companies organized the Washington Forest Fire Association (WFFA) to suppress fires on private lands. The WFFA and the state of Washington (which owned timberlands to benefit schools) cooperated in prevention campaigns, fire patrols, and firefighting. Legislation empowered rangers to arrest those who violated fire-prevention laws. Loggers put screens on their smokestacks to catch sparks and logging camps were equipped with firefighting equipment. Studies of atmospheric conditions allowed foresters to use weather observations to limit logging operations during times of high fire risk.

Logging operations left behind waste, called slash or slashings. Timberland owners burned slash to prevent it from becoming fuel for fires that could endanger virgin stands of timber. Many fires resulted from slash fires that got out of control. So, to protect the timber resource, Washington state law required loggers to burn their slash safely in the spring and fall. To reinforce the requirement, loggers were liable for fires that got out of control. The managed burning of slash did reduce the number of fires from that source, but the practice introduced fire into the Douglas fir forests of the Northwest on a more frequent cycle than before settlement.

The Enemy: Fire

In 1910, more than a thousand fires burned together in Idaho and Montana to consume three million acres of timber and kill at least 85 people, most of whom were firefighters. The catastrophe -- one of the largest, if not the largest forest fire in recorded history -- resulted in Congress appropriating money for fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service in the national forests. Congress had set aside the national forests in the 1890s to guarantee a timber supply and for other uses. Aggressive fire suppression became national policy for the next 80 years.

In Washington state, the Forest Service joined the State, and the WFFA in building a network of roads and lookouts and in fighting fires. Fire became the enemy. All fires, no matter what the cause -- human negligence, criminal intent, or lightning -- were battled as quickly as crews could be deployed. As citizens began to use the woods for recreation in the 1920s, they were enlisted in the cause of preventing forest fires. The programs were largely successful in reducing losses of valuable timber to fire. During the Great Depression (1929-1939) foresters saw fires set by people desperate for employment as firefighters.

In Walt Disney's 1942 animated motion picture Bambi, the loveable deer family and their cute little friends barely escape death in a forest fire caused by hunters. This intensified the public feeling against forest fires. The movie also boosted World War II propaganda that alleged enemy plans to torch America's forests (Japan in fact tried to set fires with balloons, but failed). In 1944, the Forest Service launched its Smokey the Bear campaign (Bambi was unavailable for the project) to prevent forest fires. The aggressive suppression and prevention of fire became dogma among land managers and the citizenry.

The huge Tillamook Fire in 1933 in Oregon (311,000 acres, one death) reinforced the fire-as-enemy mentality. Forest Service camps and offices echoed with tales of fires fought and fires defeated until the culture became that of warriors. Specialized firefighting crews became hot shots and smokejumpers.

Other Opinions

Not everyone viewed fire as the enemy. In the 1890s, California foresters practiced light burning (later called underburning and prescribed burning) in the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada. Rangers and landowners burned pine needles and brush without damage to older, more valuable ponderosa pines, which, supporters asserted, mimicked Native American practices as far back as the 1500s. Detractors of this approach derisively called it Digger burning and Piute burning after the tribes of the Sierras.

The Forest Service supplied biological research in the 1920s that supported total fire suppression. Suppression and prevention won the day as national policy for all forests everywhere. Douglas fir forests of the western Cascades were treated the same as the ponderosa pine forests to the east.

In the 1930s, biologists demonstrated that slash burning was harmful to forest regeneration, but laws passed to prevent fires required that slash be torched. As long as operators were held legally liable for any fire that originated in slash regardless of the cause, they burned slash as a necessary evil. The Washington Forest Fire Association took the position in the 1950s that if the practice of slash burning was evil, it was unnecessary.

For several decades, the policy of suppression was successful in reducing the number of fires and the acreage lost to fire.

Shifting Winds

In 1963, the Department of the Interior, responsible for National Parks, acknowledged the role that fires played in park ecosystems. Five years later, the Park Service began allowing natural fires to burn in some areas and to employ some manager-ignited fires. Parks in the Northwest gradually adopted the prescribed burning approach in the 1970s.

Slash burning fell into further disfavor in the 1960s and 1970s because of new state and federal air quality laws that measured particulate emissions.

In 1972, some U.S. Forest Service employees experimented with allowing lightning-set fires to burn in designated wilderness areas. The foresters discovered that fires in the undergrowth in pine forests burned slowly without damage to larger trees and that animals were not consumed in a holocaust. Since 1972, the Forest Service made more than 4,000 decisions to let natural fires burn. Other land management agencies did the same in wilderness areas. Human-caused fires and fires that threatened homes and structures were fought as before, with a goal of putting out every fire by 10:00 a.m. the day after the fire was reported. Viewpoints were divided between "burners" and "nonburners" (Agee, 67).

Private and state forestlands were managed to produce timber in a succession of growth cycles. These forests were subjected to regular precommercial thinning and commercial thinning where underbrush is removed to reduce the fire danger and to enhance tree growth. But fire did not recognize ownership boundaries, so forests with heavy fuel loads threatened adjacent forests that had been managed to be fire resistant.

Through the last decades of the twentieth century the problem of wildfires became more complex. Fire was good in some cases and bad in others. Policies developed and evolved amid often contradictory land-use rules, environmental rules, biological information, and public opinion.

In 1988, fires, both manmade and natural, swept across Yellowstone National Park. Intense and inaccurate media coverage led much of the nation and its leaders to believe that the jewel of the National Park system was being devastated by a mindless policy of let it burn. In reality, the fires affected a much smaller part of Yellowstone than the one million acres reported, and a smaller proportion of that involved any permanent damage. The result of the Yellowstone Fire was a temporary suspension of prescribed burning, then a more conservative approach.

Americans love the woods and the wilderness. Suburbanization after World War II drew millions to build their homes among the pines and Douglas firs. This wildland-urban interface created new challenges for firefighters. Urban fire departments confronted wildfires and forest-fire crews tried to protect structures. In September 1991, wildfires around Spokane burned 114 homes. That same weekend in Oakland, California, what started as a grassfire consumed 25 lives and 2,900 buildings.

In 2000, a prescribed burn by the Park Service at the Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, got out of control and destroyed 280 homes at Los Alamos along with other buildings. Damage was estimated at $1 billion.

Fire fighting policies reflected land ownership and land use. In July 2001, four firefighters died in the Thirty Mile Fire in the Okanogan National Forest. This was a human-caused fire and policy dictated that it be suppressed. Had the fire started one mile to the west in a designated wilderness area, it might have been allowed to burn.

Between 1995 and 2000, federal land managers prescribe-burned approximately 1.4 million acres of wildlands nationwide against an estimated 70 million acres in critical need of fuel reduction. Another 141 million acres were at moderate levels of public safety and were degrading toward critical conditions (Carle, 5). Some plans were delayed by environmental objections that prescribed burns hurt species listed as threatened or endangered and that burning was a subterfuge to allow logging. Fire policy was pulled between conflicting goals, land management vs. fire management vs. air quality vs. environmental protection vs. politics.

In the meantime, forests collected underbrush that could serve as fuel for catastrophic fires. By the end of the twentieth century, tree density in our national forests was six to 10 times greater than it had been a century earlier. This allowed fires to burn hotter, faster, and cause more destruction than in the past.  In 2000 more than 8.5 million acres, or 13,000 square miles, of forest burned, while another disastrous fire season in 2002 burned more than seven million acres, cost $1.6 billion, and killed 23 firefighters.

In December 2003, President George W. Bush (b. 1946) signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 into law. The act, among other things, provided for the reduction of the over-accumulation of fuel on federal land, and established the Healthy Forests Reserve Program for the purpose of restoring and enhancing forest ecosystems.

Though foresters and firefighters considered fire “the enemy” for many years, foresters now know that active management of our forests, such as mechanical thinning, brush removal, and prescribed burning, can reduce small trees and underbrush, which fuel large, catastrophic wildfires. This in turns improves forest health and the health of the environment as a whole.


Sources: Stan Cohen and Don Miller, The Big Burn: The Northwest's Fire of 1910 (Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1978); David Carle, Burning Questions: America's Fight With Nature's Fire (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 18-22; James K. Agee, Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 58-59; Eric Pryne, "The Good Side of Forest Fires," The Seattle Times, August 9, 1994, p. A-10; Peter Gillins, "Faulty Fire, Planting Policy is Killing Off Oregon Forest," Ibid., August 16, 1992, p. B-5; Bill Dietrich, "Ecology -- Smokey Needs a New Message," Ibid., February 24, 1992, p. F-1; Paul Trachtman, "Fire Fight," Smithsonian, August 2003; Robert Gehrke, "New Rules to Speed Logging in Fire Areas," Columbian (Vancouver, WA), June 1, 2003, p. C-10; ; “The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003,” U.S. Government Printing Office, website accessed July 29, 2008 (http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi- bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=108_cong_bills&docid=f:h1904enr.txt.pdf ); “Catastrophic Wildfire,” Washington Forest Protection Association Brochure.  See Also "Healthy Forest Initiatives (HFI)" U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service webpage (http://www.fs.fed.us/projects/hfi).
Note: This essay was updated on July 31, 2008.

Related Topics:   Environment | Forests | Industry

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