Oregon’s historic wildfires, unusual but not unprecedented: Oregonian Story

I couldn’t find an aerial photo of the Tillamook Burn. Maybe one is out there somewhere?

I thought this Oregonlive news piece by Ted Sickinger was interesting, as I had never heard much before about western Oregon fire history. The story is very long and very interesting, with many parts we could discuss. Excerpt below. I recommend reading the entire piece.

East wind events:

The strong and persistent windstorm that started Monday and stoked the big fires is unusual, but academics say similar conditions were a prime factor in many of the most infamous, fast-running west-side conflagrations since Europeans settled in Oregon.

Those include the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which torched 500,000 acres in Southwest Washington and parts of Oregon and killed at least 65 people. Easterly gales were a main ingredient in the Tillamook Burn of 1933, which initially burned 40,000 acres west of Gales Creek over 10 days, then devoured an additional 200,000 acres in 20 hours when stoked by hot east winds. East winds were also implicated in the Bandon fire of 1936, which burned 143,000 acres, consumed the town of 1,800 and killed at least 10 people.

In 1957, Owen Cramer, a meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, authored a paper describing the close relationship between occurrences of severe easterly winds and large forest fires in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington.

“The history of forest conflagrations in the Northwest is, for the most part, a history of the simultaneous occurrence of small fires and severe east winds,” he wrote, going on to describe the exact weather pattern that took place on Labor Day. “Under these conditions fires run wild and fire-control men must be prepared for the worst.”

Daniel Donato, a natural resource scientist at Washington Department of Natural Resources, is currently studying the relationship between east wind events and large fires. He says there’s ample precedent and it’s fair to say it’s characteristic of the landscape west of the Cascades.

He likens it to the recent awakening around the likelihood of a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake. “We get lulled into this sense that it doesn’t happen here. It’s a California problem. But it does happen here, with low frequency,” he said.

Dan Gavin is a geographer at the University of Oregon who studies the history and pattern of fires in wet forest types west of the Cascade Range. He says the best evidence of pre-European, west-side megafires comes from core samples of remaining old-growth trees in protected areas and tree-ring studies in stumps from 1980s clearcuts. Coupled with sediment studies, they show that big fires have been a constant presence on the landscape for at least 11,000 years, leaving uniformly aged stands of Douglas-fir across Western Oregon and Washington at intervals of 100 to 250 years.

In the hierarchy of factors that dictate how fast and far a fire will burn – fuels, topography and weather – wind speed and direction are key drivers. And since those fires have no obvious ignition source, he says, they were likely either “lightning holdovers” or fires set by indigenous tribes along hunting routes that smoldered for days to weeks before a hot and persistent east wind kicked up, bellowing the fires and preventing the typical nighttime increase in relative humidity that comes with normal westerly marine flows.

9 thoughts on “Oregon’s historic wildfires, unusual but not unprecedented: Oregonian Story”

  1. RE: “Daniel Donato, a natural resource scientist at Washington Department of Natural Resources, is currently studying the relationship between east wind events and large fires.”

    Here’s a study published by Donato and others in March 2018:

    The nature of the beast: examining climate adaptation options in forests with stand‐replacing fire regimes.

    ABSTRACT: Building resilience to natural disturbances is a key to managing forests for adaptation to climate change. To date, most climate adaptation guidance has focused on recommendations for frequent‐fire forests, leaving few published guidelines for forests that naturally experience infrequent, stand‐replacing wildfires. Because most such forests are inherently resilient to stand‐replacing disturbances, and burn severity mosaics are largely indifferent to manipulations of stand structure (i.e., weather‐driven, rather than fuel‐driven fire regimes), we posit that pre‐fire climate adaptation options are generally fewer in these regimes relative to others. Outside of areas of high human value, stand‐scale fuel treatments commonly emphasized for other forest types would undermine many of the functions, ecosystem services, and other values for which these forests are known. For stand‐replacing disturbance regimes, we propose that (1) managed wildfire use (e.g., allowing natural fires to burn under moderate conditions) can be a useful strategy as in other forest types, but likely confers fewer benefits to long‐term forest resilience and climate adaptation, while carrying greater socio‐ecological risks; (2) reasoned fire exclusion (i.e., the suppression component of a managed wildfire program) can be an appropriate strategy to maintain certain ecosystem conditions and services in the face of change, being more ecologically justifiable in long‐interval fire regimes and producing fewer of the negative consequences than in frequent‐fire regimes; (3) low‐risk pre‐disturbance adaptation options are few, but the most promising approaches emphasize fundamental conservation biology principles to create a safe operating space for the system to respond to change (e.g., maintaining heterogeneity across scales and minimizing stressors); and (4) post‐disturbance conditions are the primary opportunity to implement adaptation strategies (such as protecting live tree legacies and testing new regeneration methods), providing crucial learning opportunities. This approach will provide greater context and understanding of these systems for ecologists and resource managers, stimulate future development of adaptation strategies, and illustrate why public expectations for climate adaptation in these forests will differ from those for frequent‐fire forests.

    For those who aren’t familiar, “forests with stand‐replacing fire regimes” include many forests in the West Cascades region of Oregon and Washington, much of the Coast Range of Oregon and Washington, much of forested landscape within the Northern and Central Rockies, as well as the Southern Sierras, especially forests found at upper elevations in these regions.

  2. Sharon and others may not remember, or know about all this history, but it would be very remiss to not share this bit of history….

    In Bed With Big Wood: Emails show OSU and timber sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
    By Ian Demsky, Willamette Weekly, April 18, 2006

    Recently released emails show just how actively Oregon State University’s forestry dean helped Big Timber do “damage control” over a grad student’s research that found logging after fires hurts forests’ recovery.

    Putting aside the very public debate over the science, the emails raise the specter of a bigger problem for OSU’s College of Forestry: Do Dean Hal Salwasser’s actions reveal a too-cozy relationship that runs counter to the basic neutrality and mission of a publicly funded research institution?

    “Here’s the line that was crossed,” says state Sen. Charlie Ringo, who obtained the emails before a recent legislative hearing to examine OSU’s ties to the timber industry.

    “The College of Forestry should work closely with the industry in advancing scientific knowledge,” says Ringo (D-Beaverton). “But it shouldn’t work to advance the industry’s political agenda.”

    Hundreds of pages of emails reviewed by WW clearly show how concerned Salwasser was by the study written by forestry student Daniel Donato and others. Science, one of the country’s most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, published the study in January.

    Salwasser thought the study’s findings were premature and overbroad. But at issue is how his concern translated into action, especially as industry insiders worried the study would undercut pending federal legislation to increase salvage logging.

    Salwasser, who has apologized for attempts by university faculty to prevent the article’s publication, told WW the emails were collegial because he didn’t think the controversy was so large at first. He denied the college was too closely tied to industry. “We have to have our programs aligned with the…science they depend on,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you’re in bed with them.”

    Here are some excerpts from Salwasser’s emails, reflecting his and the industry’s shared panic over the Donato study:

    Writing Jan. 18 to Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council lobby, Salwasser notes that Oregonian reporter Michael Milstein “appears to be taking the side of the [Donato] study and looking for a link between our budget situation and my context piece [that argued against its findings]. This could turn into attacks on me and the college. Not sure what to do next.”

    On Jan. 12, Salwasser writes Jennifer Phillippi of Rough & Ready Lumber Co.: “These activist groups set up all the hurdles that make these projects money losers then they complain that the agency loses money so that projects should not be done…i can’t call these goons out from my position but someone must bring this to light eventually. This is not ‘environmental protection’ it is extortion.”

    Or consider this Jan. 17 exchange between Salwasser and Dennis Creel of lumber wholesaler Hampton Affiliates after Salwasser has sent out a retort to the Donato study, in which industry funding of the college seems on the line:

    Creel: “Is there a way to get this into a shorter letter form and submit to the Oregonian from Hal?”

    Salwasser: “They have had a copy of it since last Tues.”

    Creel: “Well, that’s all you can do…Perhaps they are waiting on the timing or to see if other are going to respond.”

    Salwasser: “Its ‘cooking.'”

    Creel: “Good. By the way Hal, I would like to talk with you a bit more on philanthropy and the Hamptons when we get a chance. With this flap, I think it would be good to pause….”

    Max Merlich, vice president of Columbia Helicopters, a major Republican backer that uses choppers to haul timber from remote areas, also wrote to Salwasser after the controversy surfaced:

    “I am going to do some damage control on this thing … However, the likelihood of this paper being used successfully against us in court on salvage logging litigation is very high. Post catastrophic harvest is the most important part of our business, making this a very difficult issue between our organizations … How OSU handles this from this point on could play an important part on our issues.”

    • Matthew, I think we discussed it before but I couldn’t find it here.
      1. AAS/Science is very politically oriented and the timing was just right (how often does Science publish a study of say, tree planting techniques, or even tree physiology?) When Science publishes something about forests it’s a “Science Situation that shouts watch out.”
      2. It was published as a brevia..they don’t do brevia any more but it was one page one figure..
      https://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/data/brevia/index.xhtml . AAAS didn’t even put it in a full study- one page one figure and political timing.
      3. I call this the “cats and logs crush baby trees” paper. That was known by anyone. However, the question to a refo person is “how many are left, and are there enough to produce a new stand?” And what does it matter if a bunch more are going to come in after the logs are removed?
      4. You can’t make blanket statements about salvage logging everywhere based on one study in SW Oregon.. For example
      ” Our study underscores that, after logging, the mitigation of short-term fire risk is not possible without subsequent fuel reduction treatments. However, implementing these treatments is also problematic.
      Mechanical removal is generally precluded by its expense, leaving prescribed burning as the most feasible method. This will result in additional seedling mortality and potentially severe soil impacts caused by long-duration combustion of logging-generated fuel loads.”
      Now if you lived in a different part of Oregon, you might think that you would do broadcast burning- that wouldn’t work (I guess) with the fuel loads on the Biscuit.

      It is one study on one fire, and yet they concluded.
      “In addition, forest regeneration is not necessarily in crisis across all burned forest landscapes.”
      But no one said it was.. so why mention it?

      Looking back it’s clear to me that Science was using the mantle of science to do a drive-by on salvage logging. It’s a wakeup call to those who believe in Science. the OSU profs who wrote the letter responding are just as much scientists as the ones who wrote the original paper… and yet.. they disagree. Peer review is supposed to give us the correct answer, only not so much due to small and large p politics. This showed us that the Science Emperor has no clothes under the right conditions.

  3. aerial photos did not become widely available in most of Oregon until the 1940s…and the last of the 3 Tillamook burns was awhile before that, so early after the burn aerial photos may be hard to come by…


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