Fire burns more than 35 square miles on and east of the Sammamish Plateau in King County starting on April 16, 1939.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 3/29/2007
  • Essay 8121
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Between April 16 and 18, 1939, a massive brush fire burns more than 35 square miles in King County, on and east of the Sammamish Plateau.  There are no casualties and property damage is relatively minimal, given the low population of the area and valiant efforts by firefighters to protect structures that are threatened. However, it is one of the largest brush fires (if not the largest) to strike King County during the 1930s.   

To Burn a Fern Patch

On Sunday morning, April 16, 1939, a rancher living near the present day (2007) location of the Sammamish Highlands Shopping Center in Sammamish decided to burn a fern patch on his land. He may have failed to take into account how dry it was -- 1939 had seen an unusually dry, warm early spring on the Sammamish Plateau, and by mid-April fire conditions were more typical for July.  Indeed, on the weekend of April 14-16 alone, about 80 brush and forest fires erupted in Western Washington, aided by particularly warm temperatures: On April 16 it was 77 degrees in Seattle.  Soon the rancher’s innocuous fern patch fire mushroomed into one of King County’s largest brush fires of the 1930s.   

The fire quickly spread into the surrounding underbrush and raced south and east toward Patterson Creek and Beaver Lake. Volunteers from the Issaquah Rural Volunteer Fire Department, county road crews, mine crews, crews from the Washington Forest Fire Association, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) as well as 30 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees from Camp Sultan raced to the scene to fight the fire, which first threatened the eastern shore of Beaver Lake. But then the winds changed from west to east and blew the fire into the northern shore of the lake. 

Sinclair's New House

In 1939 development was just beginning along the northern shore of Beaver Lake, and there were only a few newly built homes there. One of these homes was owned by Raymond Sinclair, a Seattle firefighter. He had just finished building the home the week before and had not even had time to move in. Sinclair’s Beaver Lake neighbors called him that morning to warn him about the fire, but when he got to his cabin he found it burned to the ground. (Sinclair rebuilt and with his wife Marion moved to Beaver Lake in 1941; they were the third permanent family there.)

 But firefighters were able to save several other threatened homes, though not without some heroics.  That afternoon another cabin owned by M. R. Beck of Seattle was threatened by flames. The firefighters commandeered a fleet of boats (probably from the Four Seasons Lodge on the southwestern shore of the lake), rowed up behind the fire, set a backfire,  set up five portable pumps on the northern shore of the lake and watered down the cabin and land until the flames had passed.  

Shifting Winds

Shifting winds that Sunday forced firefighters to fight the same fire twice that day in the same area between Beaver Lake and Pine Lake. The Four Seasons Lodge at Beaver Lake was threatened, but firefighters kept the lodge and surrounding structures hosed down and it was saved. The unoccupied Warner ranch between Beaver Lake and Pine Lake was not so fortunate and the fire wiped it out. Flames continued to spread toward Pine Lake, though they evidently did not quite reach the lake itself. There is no record of “Frenchy’s” Pine Lake Resort, on the eastern shore of the lake, being threatened by the fire.  By Sunday night at least 12 square miles had burned, and with no end in sight, firefighters stayed up fighting the fire all that night and into Monday, April 17.

The firefighters faced more on Monday. The unusually warm weather continued, with temperatures again approaching 80 degrees. And by Monday the winds had changed again and now blew from the west at about 10 to 15 m.p.h., sending a wall of flame back toward Fall City and Preston. At one point firefighters found themselves surrounded by towering curtains of flame and had to fight their way out. Their problems were exacerbated when they found they did not have enough water to fight such an enormous conflagration and were left to carefully pick their battles.   

Still, by Monday night it looked as though firefighters were finally getting the upper hand. The winds eased and slightly cooler, moister air was on tap for Tuesday, April 18. But shortly after sunrise on Tuesday morning the westerly winds kicked up again and reignited the fire for a grand finale. The fire again raced east, crossing the Redmond-Fall City highway for the first time and briefly threatening Fall City before firefighters were finally able to quell it for good at about 10 a.m., three or four miles west of Fall City.

The Beaver Lake Fire

The Beaver Lake Fire, as it was informally called, gets short shrift in most King County histories, probably because there were no casualties and property damage was relatively light -- only two homes and a few outbuildings were destroyed. Most of the damage was limited to underbrush and second-growth timber.

But the fire is vividly remembered by the people who fought it or were affected by it, and it was notable for its sheer size: At over 35 square miles, or roughly twice the size of today’s city of Sammamish, it was one the biggest brush fires in King County in the 1930s, if not the biggest. The fire was also notable for its capriciousness, as the winds changed direction several times during the fire’s two day rampage, forcing firefighters to almost play a game of musical chairs in trying to guess where the fire would go next.

Sources: “Blaze Covers 12-Mile Area In Beaver Lake Region,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 18, 1939, pp. 1, 6;  “Brush Fire Precautions Tightened,” Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1939, pp. 1, 4;  “Record Fires Hit District; 40-Mile Area Burned Over At Beaver Lake,” Issaquah Press, April 20, 1939, pp. 1, 5;  Ruth Shearer, Beaver Lake Stewardship Handbook (Published by Peggy Baschen, 1994), 6;  Phil Dougherty interview of Archie Howatson, March 11, 2007, Issaquah, Washington.

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