Wildfires in Washington

This summer’s wildfires raging throughout the West remind us that such challenges are difficult to face. July’s Carlton Complex burned through central Washington and surpassed the 1902 Yacolt Burn as the state’s largest recorded wildfire.

Map of 1902 Yacolt Burn (Image courtesy of USDA Forest Service)

Map of 1902 Yacolt Burn
(Image courtesy of USDA Forest Service)

Named after the town of Yacolt, this September wildfire decimated the area between the Columbia River and Mount St. Helens traveling 36 miles in 36 hours. At one point, the fire was 12 miles wide! Frank Barnes witnessed the Yacolt Burn and wrote, “The smoke darkened the sun so that, although we were fully one-hundred miles distant, we had to use lights to run our mill. All day, leaves would come floating through the air and when they would light on the lake, they dissolved into ashes. Many people believed the world was coming to an end. . .”

Moist, cool air normally flows from the ocean and brings rain to the area, but the wind had reversed direction and brought a hot and dry east wind—known as the Devil Wind. Temperature also played a role – topping off at 97 degrees in Portland on September 11. The wildfire that followed was so intense that the U.S. Army dispatched troops to protect property, and regional businesses halted shipping along the Columbia River. Wells Fargo’s Portland Agent Eugene Shelby relied on trains to ship customers’ goods during this natural disaster. To the north 180 miles, Wells Fargo’s Agent August Otto would have witnessed cinders a half-inch thick covering Seattle.

This “awful forest conflagration” disabled telegraph lines and destroyed schools, churches, and logging camps. Autumn rain finally extinguished the flames on September 13. When it ended, the devastating fire had claimed 38 lives, left 146 families homeless, and burned over 238,000 acres.

Snags from Yacolt Burn in the Columbia National Forest, c. 1920s (Image from USDA Forest Service)

Yacolt Burn snags in Columbia Forest, 1920s
(Image courtesy of USDA Forest Service)

No matter how prepared you are, fires burning out of control can destroy even the best defenses. Visit Firewise to learn more on how you can protect your home and look over your homeowner’s insurance to see what coverage you have in the event of a fire.

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Guided By History

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