The Good Fight Forest Fire Protection and the Pacific Northwest

By Robbins, William G. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Good Fight Forest Fire Protection and the Pacific Northwest


Robbins, William G., Oregon Historical Quarterly


IN A HOT SUMMER AFTERNOON IN AUGUST 1990, a campfire burst into flames and quickly spread into the thick, tinder-dry underbrush of second-growth ponderosa pine along Tumalo Creek in a canyon just to the west of Bend, Oregon. Within minutes, gusting winds whipped the small blaze into a raging inferno, propelling the rapidly advancing flames southward toward resorts and luxury homes adjacent to Century Drive. Although someone reported the fire shortly after it started and planes from the nearby Redmond Air Center dropped retardant on the fast-moving flames within an hour of ignition, the wall of fire raced forward across a twelve-mile path, eventually burning more than thirty-three hundred acres and leaving more than twenty homes in smoking ruins. Identified as the Awbrey Hall fire, the blaze was brought under control through the hard work of 1,600 firefighters and support crews and the costly deployment of a dozen retardant-dropping airplanes, 12 helicopters, 122 fire engines, and 70 bulldozers. By the time the dying embers had cooled, the blackened landscape represented property losses of more than $5 million and fire-fighting expenses exceeding $2 million, the state's worst fire disaster in several decades.[1]

For Oregon and other forested areas in the American West, the Awbrey Hall fire reflected a century of logging and fire history in the region. It also served as a reminder of the continuing public controversy over the proper management of our public forests. For the past decade or so, stories about forest fires have fueled heated public debates across the western United States, creating lots of rhetorical smoke but doing little to bring sanity and clear thinking to our understanding about the issue. "If anyone doubts the power of fire in nature and society," historian Stephen Pyne writes, "there is a simple test that extinguishes doubt: remove fire and see what remains."[2] Fire is a profoundly biological happening -- it degrades, regenerates, and renews -- but it is also a cultural phenomenon, enabling humans to shape the world about them through its active use or suppression. Because fire functions in both physical and cultural worlds, the struggle to protect against wildfires during the last century or so has been fundamentally political, reflecting an overweening cultural hubris that we can control the world around us. From that perspective, fire was deemed unnatural, the consequence of careless human activity or the result of natural phenomena, such as lightning.

There were, of course, other cultural values reflected in the function of fire, evidence that was apparent to westward-migrating settlers who observed the effects of Indian burning everywhere along the Oregon Trail and in the western valleys. The historical record provides incontestible proof that anthropogenic fire sustained Willamette and Puget lowland prairies and the semiarid steppe country east of the Cascade Mountains, with both landscapes showing the results of those subsistence strategies. Although ecological and historical observations indicate that human activities profoundly shaped those settings, scholars have been slow to recognize the purposeful nature of fire and its critical importance to human subsistence needs. It is an understatement to say that Indian burning practices cast millennia-long shadows, although much of the evidence is revealed only through the careful study of tree rings and other scientific indicators.

NATURALIST DAVID DOUGLAS, IN THE EMPLOY OF THE Horticultural Society of London, understood the significance of the late summer fires when he journeyed up the Willamette Valley in September and October of 1826. The well-traveled Scot was accompanying Alexander McLeod and the Hudson's Bay Company's southern trapping expedition through a charred and blackened landscape, with "not a single blade of grass except on the margins of rivulets." In an oft-quoted journal entry, the stonemason's son was quick to acknowledge that valley Indians had set the prairies to fire:

Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. …

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