On this day in 1933, a devastating forest fire is sparked in the Coast Range Mountains, located in northern Oregon, 50 miles west of Portland. Raging for 11 days over some 267,000 acres, the blaze began a series of fires that struck the region at six-year intervals until 1951 that became known collectively as the Tillamook Burn.
The first Tillamook Burn fire—which began around noon on August 14, 1933—was sparked in a logging operation located on the slopes above the North Fork of Gales Creek, west of the town of Forest Grove. An official investigation of the fire found that it stemmed from friction produced when loggers dragged a large Douglas-fir log across a downed tree, igniting a large amount of logging debris in the area. Weather conditions—including an unusually high temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with only 20 percent humidity—helped ignite and spread the blaze, and within an hour, the fire had destroyed 60 acres of the surrounding land.
Present-day roads and highways in the region had not yet been built, and the remote location of the logging operation meant that the loggers were forced to fight the fire largely by themselves. Some 3,000 men, including loggers, local farmers and volunteers and several hundred members of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, battled with the fire over 10 days as it burned through some 40,000 acres. On the night of August 24, strong east winds spread the blaze over 240,000 more acres in only 20 hours, making it one of the fastest-growing forest fires of the 20th century.
Though its spread was eventually stopped by rain, the devastation caused by the blaze primed the region for future forest fires. In 1939, another fire raged over more than 200,000 acres of the Coast Range, including 19,000 acres of previously untouched forest. In 1945, two fires burned 182,000 acres, and in 1951, another two fires consumed more than 32,000 more. All told, the fires of the Tillamook Burn damaged or destroyed a combined total of 355,000 acres (554 square miles) of the country’s richest timberland.
In the years after 1951, much of the land in the Coast Range began moving from private to public ownership, as struggling landholders forfeited their property to the government rather than pay property taxes on the damaged land. With the land under state control, the legacy of the Tillamook Burn continued to shape life in the region for decades to come, as the Oregon Department of Forestry launched comprehensive fire-protection and reforestation programs, including the planting millions of seedlings by hand and via helicopter.