by Joseph E. Taylor III
I come from a place that knew what a mushroom cloud looked like well before Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Alamogordo. That place is called the Nestucca Valley, but the relevant landscape is known more simply as “The Tillamook.” The relevant date is August 24, 1933. The relevant image is this:
The story is well known. On blistering hot day in mid-August 1933, a slash fire erupted on a logging operation in the Gales Creek watershed of Washington County, Oregon. The fire immediately ran out of control and into the Tillamook Bay watershed, consuming sixty-three square miles of old growth.
Then a blanket of fog mercifully quelled the flames. Trees still smoked, however, and in the early morning of the 24th a convergence of natural forces turned what had been a bad burn into a historical moment. The fog that had throttled the fire receded. Humidity again plummeted, and a hot, desiccating east wind kicked up.
East winds are never a good thing in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon folk wisdom about them parallels southern Californians’ tales about the Santa Anas. They last three days. They make people crazy. Something bad happens. In August 1933, catastrophe didn’t wait long.
Friends and relatives who lived through that night recounted their experiences decades later. People in Pacific City, Tillamook, Astoria, West Linn, and Salem awoke to a “kaboom.” The best guess is that those 63 square miles of scorched timber spontaneously recombusted, propelling a giant, wholly natural mushroom cloud into the stratosphere, some 40 to 50,000 feet.
Everyone even remotely close fled in terror. The fire burned an estimated 375 to 420 square miles of forest within a day. As a mental exercise, mark off a 20-mile by 20-mile square around where you live. Then imagine it going up in flames—all of it—within twenty hours. The forests burned for weeks and then smoldered for months. And then it burned again every six years in 1939, 1945, and 1951.
The devastation was total. Even the soil nutrients burned. It took heroic efforts to reseed the land. In the 1950s families planted seedlings in a publicized campaign to resurrect “The Tillamook,” but planes and helicopters did most of the work, casting seeds by the millions from the sky for years.
Those stories came back to haunt me this week, and not just because the West is burning. The West burns every year, and, at least to my mind, it ought to burn. Western North America is a vast disturbance ecology. For millennia fire was an intrinsic part of this half of the continent, at least until Gifford Pinchot and the Forest Service decided that fire was inefficient and must be stopped.
Generations of kids grew up memorizing Smokey the Bear’s admonition, “Only you. . . ,” only to learn later that all that responsibility set us up for something much worse. The reckoning came in Yellowstone in 1988, in the Kalmiopsis twice, in the Bob seemingly every year, and in many other forests as well. The absence of fire has turned the West into a pyro time bomb, the implications of which came rushing back in a photo from Saturday’s Portland Oregonian that others replicated on Twitter.
Portland was blanketed by smoke from the fires in eastern Washington. The foul air surged into the metro area on an east wind. The worst air quality of all (PM2.5 166) was in Beaverton, where my daughter lives. Happily, she was in Bend that day, but I know about bad air. I was born in South Central Los Angeles. It was an atmospheric sump in the leaded gasoline era, and the smog fouled everyone’s lungs. By the time I was four I had intimate knowledge of the inside of an oxygen tent. I do not wish that kind of coughing on anyone, let alone my daughter.
Yet here we are. I have watched fire seasons for a half century, and more and more I think about the next holocaust. It has been a very very long time since some forests burned. The blue oblong on this recent fire map highlights a large area of absence along the coast, and it no longer seems a blessing.
I have read ethnographic accounts by coastal Indians, tales told in the early twentieth century to anthropologists from Columbia University and the University of Washington. The Coos recalled a huge fire that swept westward over the Coast Range. Charcoal records suggest it happened in the early 19th century, well before settlers arrived. Fueled by an east wind, the flames were so intense they drove humans and animals alike onto the beaches. Descendants spoke of coons, deer, elk, wolves, cougars, and bears huddled in fear. It reads like a Rousseauian truce of the food chain, at least until Hell passed.
It has been a long time since we saw anything like that, 1933 to be exact, but the accumulated deadfall in the Coast Range, the product of fire suppression and reduced logging, is now converging with a warming and drying climate. I think about all this and wonder not whether but when an east wind in August will bring the next mushroom cloud.
Joseph E. Taylor III is a professor of History at Simon Fraser University.