In September of 1902, a massive wildfire erupted in Washington State burning 238, 920 acres in 36 hours.
When the wildfire’s smoke and ash first filled the air in September of 1902, terrified residents of Washington State thought Mount St. Helens, Silver Star Mountain, or perhaps even Mount Rainier had exploded with volcanic fury. They grabbed what they could–sometimes only their children–and ran to the nearest lake or river. Fueled by the hot, dry, East Washington winds, the wildfire raced across the land. It’s smoke and ash soon reached as far as Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
The Yacolt Fire Begins
It was hot and dry in the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1902. The high temperatures and low humidity filled the heart of many with fear of wildfires, and this fear was not unfounded. Wildfires were common in logging areas, and once a fire started, it was nearly impossible to put it out. On September 11, a fierce, dry wind called a “Devil Wind” moved from east of the Cascades, over the mountains, and into the Pacific, sparking dozens of fires at a time. It must have seemed as if the land was self-combusting. According to Richard Williams, author of The Old West: The Loggers, over 110 separate wildfires started that afternoon, ranging from Canada to California. Many of these fires “crowned” quickly with the wind–the flames were leaping from tree top to tree top.
Seeking Shelter from a Firestorm
Loggers, local residents, and all wildlife in these areas frantically sought shelter in ponds and lakes, but the water boiled with the heat of the flames around it and in some cases the logs and debris in the lakes and rivers burst into flames. East of Mount St. Helens, sixty loggers, prospectors and farmers were said to have successfully found shelter from the firestorm at Trout Lake, sharing the waters with mountain lions, coyotes and bears. Two other families headed in the same direction could not make it past the wall of fire moving through the valley of the Lewis River. Oddly enough, though the fire was named for the railroad town of Yacolt, and residents of the town spent the night standing in the nearby creek, the flames jumped over the town and moved on, leaving houses blistered and filled with smoke and ash, but still intact.
Damages from the Yacolt Burn
A cloud of smoke extended forty miles out to sea, choking and gagging sailors on their ships. Many towns that lay in the path of the wall of fire completely disappeared. Although the worst of the damages were seen in the first three days, the smaller fires continued for seven days until they were driven back upon themselves and died with nothing left to burn. In the first 36 hours, 238,920 acres of forest was destroyed in the counties of Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania, leaving a wasteland of blackened stumps. An estimated 17 billion board feet of lumber was burned. An estimated 35 people died, but the true death toll will never be known. More than 146 families were left homeless. The loss of wildlife cannot even be imagined.
Legacy of the Yacolt Burn
The Yacolt Burn inspired many changes in the way wildfires were handled in Washington State. The Washington State Legislature established a position for a fire warden in 1903. In 1908, landowners voted to fund a system of fire wardens, established the Washington Fire Protection Association and started educational programs to teach fire prevention to private landowners. The United States Forest Service followed suit in 1910, organizing education programs to teach wildfire suppression on public lands.
- Williams, Richard L. The Old West: The Loggers. Time Life Books, Inc. Canada: 1976.
- Wilma, David. “Yacolt Burn, largest forest fire in recorded state history, rages from September 11 to 13, 1902.” Historylink.Org.
- “Yacolt and the Fire Demon.” Clark County Washington Website