Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Tillamook Burn

The Tillamook Burn was a series of forest fires in the Coast Range of Oregon in the United States that destroyed a total area of 355,000 acres of old growth timber, as well as the location of these fires. This event is an important part of the local history of Oregon.

The Fires

There were four wild fires in this series. The first was started in the Gales Creek Canyon on August 14, 1933 when a steel cable dragging a fallen Douglas fir rubbing on the dry bark of a wind-fallen snag burst into flame, and burned 240,000 acres before it was extinguished by seasonal rains on September 5. An oppressive, acrid smoke filled the neighboring valleys; ashes, and cinders, and the charred needles of trees fell in the streets of Tillamook; and debris from the fire reached ships 500 miles at sea. The loss in processed lumber was estimated to have been $442.4 million in contemporary (1933) dollars -- a serious loss not only to the lumber industry at the time, but also to a nation struggling with the Great Depression. Salvage operations were immediately begun to harvest usable portions of the burned wilderness.

The second fire was started on 1939, allegedly by another logging operation. It burned 190,000 acres before being extinguished, and was contained within the bounds of the earlier fire.

A third fire started on the morning of July 9, 1945 near the Salmonberry River, and was joined two days later by a second blaze on the Wilson River, started by a discarded cigarette. This fire burned 180,000 acres before it was put out. The cause of the blaze on the Salmonberry River was mysterious, and many believed it had been set by an incendinary balloon launched by the Japanese, and brought to Oregon by the jet stream.

The third fire was perhaps the best known, after the initial wild fire, because it affected much of the forested mountains along the popular highways between Portland, Oregon and the recreational destinations of the Ocean Beaches. This devastation remained visible to any traveller through the area as late as the mid-1970s.

The last fire started on 1952, and burned only 32,700 acres, also being confined within the burned-over area.


Much of the lands of the Tillamook burn had come to be owned by the counties of Tillamook, Yamhill, and Washington through foreclosures on unpaid property taxes; at the time of the forest fires, most of the land was owned by timber companies who also paid the cost of fighting the fires. A measure was submitted by the Legislature to the voters to float a bond to finance reforestation, which narrowly passed in 1948.

In a book published that same year, Stewart Holbrook wrote about the Tillamook burn in Northwest Corner: Oregon and Washington:

[Reforestation] can never compensate for that tragedy we call the Tillamook Burn, as somber a sight as to be viewed this side of the Styx. There they stand, millions of ghostly firs, now stark against the sky, which were green as the sea and twice as handsome, until an August day of 1933, when a tiny spark blew into a hurricane of fire that removed all life from 300,000 acres of the finest timber even seen. It was timber, too, that had been 400 years in the making. It was wiped out in a few seething hours which Oregon will have reason to remember well past the year 2000.

Reforestation was performed simultaneously with research into the best methods. Many local Oregonians believe that replanting the Tillamook Burn was performed by school children volunteering a Saturday afternoon when their labor only met about one percent of the total effort; this was a brilliant public relations coup created by Arthur W. Priaulx of the West Coast Lumberman's Association in 1950.

In July 18, 1973, 24 years to the day after the reforestation bond was signed into law, Governor Tom McCall dedicated the Tillamook Burn as the Tillamook State Forest.

At the time the reforestation of the Tillamook Burn began, it was assumed that the forest land would, when the trees were mature, be harvested for lumber. Current environmental beliefs have questioned this assumption, and both the proportions and specific parts of this land that will be logged or conserved for wildlife are in dispute.