By Jack Petree
August 14, 1933, a forest fire literally exploded into being near the coastal Northwest Oregon town of Tillamook. It was described as “holocaustic” by Bonita J. Neiland, a University of Oregon professor studying the fire in the 1950s. In just a few days, according to Oregon Department of Forestry sources, 240,000 acres were ablaze.
In an oddity, fire exploded again in a subsequent six year cycle (1939, 1945, and 1951), burning additional forest acreages. Ultimately, about 355,000 total acres were consumed. University of Colorado professor Kenneth A. Erickson reported the estimated 16 billion board ft. of timber lost in the 1933 Tillamook fire amounted to about six times more timber than was destroyed in the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980.
Photos of the Tillamook Burn detail an almost total devastation; a nuclear weapon exploded over the area could not have more completely destroyed the forest that existed August 13, the day preceding the burn. In fact, one of the more famous photos of the fire showed a giant mushroom cloud expanding tens of thousands of feet into the air over the burning forest.
Today, most of the land affected by the Tillamook Burn has been acquired by the state of Oregon to create the Tillamook State Forest. The centerpiece of the forest is a complex anchored by the Tillamook Forest Center (TFC), an educational center functioning as a museum/library/recreation/tourist attraction funded by the nonprofit Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust, which is a private/public consortium of public entities, forest products firms, individual donors, environmental groups, and representatives of the education and recreation communities.
The TFC was created with the express goal to develop “…tools and experiences that help Oregonians better understand and appreciate the Tillamook State Forest and all of Oregon’s state-owned forests.” The TFC is said to be the region’s largest forest-based learning center and outdoor classroom facility, an interpretive and educational center showcasing, “…the legacy of the historic Tillamook Burn and the public spirit behind a monumental reforestation effort that left a permanent imprint on Oregon history while also shaping sustainable forest management today.”
Visitors express surprise at the depth of the experience offered at the center, making it without a doubt, a must-see for anyone interested in forests, wildfires, the environment, and the impacted communities.
As described by the Center’s promoters, “No other place in Oregon or the Northwest provides the forest-based learning opportunities found at the Tillamook Forest Center. We’re distinguished by our forest surroundings, our focus on forest history, on the power of wildfire, and on the art and science of sustainable forest management today.”
The TFC fully lives up to the hype. A visit allows adults and children alike an amazing variety of experiences including a functioning replica of a traditional fire lookout tower; a first-class display hall combining displays focusing on the fire with additional displays about the forest and logging history; a bridge over the Wilson River, linking the center’s display halls to an extensive trail system; and an amazing, award-winning video about the fire that has to be seen, “smelled,” and felt, to be fully appreciated. The video puts the viewer as close to the scene of an actual fire as can be experienced without actually being singed by the heat.
Yesterday’s Fire – Today’s Issues
Of at least equal importance to the future of forests in the Pacific Northwest, the TFC features a resource seldom seen by the public — an extensive library containing hundreds of original and secondary documents, as well as photographs describing and depicting the Tillamook fire, its consequences, and the steps taken to recover the forest.
Rich in resource material, the TFC library holds thousands of documents that detail the pre-fire forest and the efforts to restore that devastated forest over the course of eight-plus decades following the fire. Also included are the data necessary to assess the success and/or failures of those efforts. In today’s ever-changing world, the TFC may play a key role in shaping the Northwest forest products industry of the future.
The Tillamook Forest Center and the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest complex around it offer future forest Paleo ecologists who study the forests of the past to learn more about the impact various events had on those forests. Findings provided by Paleo ecologists can be used by forest managers today to enhance efforts to provide for the healthy and sustainable forests we all want and need in the future.
The Tillamook fires were somewhat unique in the level of destruction visited on the forest, but after the fires, a “green island” of about 2,500 acres remained near the center of the burned area. That green island was examined closely and reported on in the early 1950s after investigations by Dr. Neiland.
Neiland’s work, combined with the extensive material contained in the TFC library, can help provide a starting point for investigations into the numerous questions we have today about the impacts of fire (at least on forests similar to the original Tillamook forest), efforts to recover a forest that’s been burned to the ground, and the long-term impacts of those recovery efforts. It may answer questions such as, “What happens when an old forest dominated by Douglas fir, and Noble fir is vaporized in the space of a few days followed by intense recovery efforts on the part of humans to rebuild that forest based on concepts in vogue at the time?” “What went right?” “What went wrong?” “What should come next?”
Most importantly, perhaps, is the opportunity to answer the question, “How can the things we learn today as a result of the Tillamook conflagration and subsequent restoration efforts inform our actions in response to similar events occurring regularly in the present?”
Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Forests
In effect, the Tillamook State Forest is a gigantic laboratory — a laboratory as important today as it has been for the past eight decades.
Policy approaches to forest issues have changed dramatically over time. In 1933 the United States was in the middle of a depression, and jobs were the issue of the day. When the second fire occurred, we were using the forests as a resource to support a multitude of government projects aimed at employing people and restoring a healthy economy. The third fire came the year World War II ended, and we were looking to our forests to supply the immense amount of lumber and other wood products necessary to provide housing for returning troops and their soon to be established families.
Today, climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and similar issues have taken center stage in policy determinations about how best to manage our forests. Photographs of the pre-fire Tillamook forest, of the fire itself, and of the charred remains of the forest can allow for estimates of both the greenhouse gas emissions and the sequestration achieved pre-fire as well as allowing for estimates of the huge spike in emissions occurring since the fire. Data and photos accumulated since the fire can allow for estimates of the greenhouse gas impacts over time of a newly planted and growing forest, while analysis of the forest in place today can provide a wealth of material about the long-term impacts of the various recovery efforts experimented with at Tillamook. We can learn more about how to utilize our forests for both traditional benefits and greenhouse gas reductions as well.
In short, the Tillamook Forest Center is not only a world-class tourist attraction fulfilling the educational goals set for it, it is likely to become, in the near future, a world-class research facilitator enabling informed decision making regarding the utilization of the nation’s forests in achieving the many services we look to those forests to provide.
On the Cover
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A Look Into Fire
August 14, 1933, a forest fire literally exploded into being near the coastal Northwest Oregon town of Tillamook. It was described as “holocaustic”.
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