Around every corner of Clark County, incredible history can be found. While much of it is inspiring, fascinating and uplifting, we occasionally stumble upon a moment in our region’s past that is devastating, chaotic and downright terrifying. One such event was the Yacolt Burn in 1902 when one of the largest fires in Washington State turned much of Southwest Washington into an inferno, taking lives and burning everything in sight for five brutal days.
The Yacolt Burn was Washington’s largest forest fire until 2014 when the Carlton Complex in Okanogan burned 258,000 acres. With nearly 239,000 acres devastated, the Yacolt Burn is still the deadliest fire to hit the Evergreen State. Today, the memories of this blaze are all but forgotten, but those who know where to look can still see fire damage in the hills and mountainsides throughout eastern Clark County.
On September 8, 1902, a series of fires ignited around the Columbia River Gorge from numerous sources. While the official start to the majority of the fires is a mystery, the multiple fires near Eagle Creek and Dodson on the Oregon side of the river quickly burned down the Columbia River Gorge, hopping over the river as strong winds from Eastern Washington pushed embers onto the dry timbers of Washington. The nearly dozen fires that were burning eventually joined on the Washington side of the Columbia, becoming what is now known as the Yacolt Burn. The series of fires linking together became an event that would long be talked about in the area. From September 8 until September 13, 1902 the flames caused unfathomable damage and terror to the majority of Southwest Washington.
The fire, once becoming a tornado of flames and embers, traveled 30 miles in just 36 hours, destroying 238,920 acres of timber. Without today’s connectivity and communications abilities, people living in these regions stood no chance against the rapidly advancing fire. Due to the quickly traveling flames, at least 65 people lost their lives in both Washington and Oregon. While devastating for the people in the region to lose loved ones, the property damage from this fire was assessed at roughly $12.7 million in 1902. During the fire, 12 billion board feet of timber was destroyed, and north of Clark County the towns of Elma and Bucoda were ravaged.
Away from the inferno, panic ensued all over the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the entire area the smoke caused people to wonder if Mount Rainier or Mount St. Helens had erupted. The fire emitted so much ash that miles away in downtown Portland one-half-of-an-inch fell in the streets. Along the Columbia River it is said that in the middle of the day, the steamboats had to use searchlights to navigate, but when those were not effective, were forced to rely on a compass only to get down the mighty river. At noon in Seattle, which was 160 miles from the starting point of the fire, the town’s new street lights were turned on so residents could see.
The town of Yacolt, for which the fire was named, never actually sustained any fire damage. As the flames got closer and closer to the tiny hamlet, and paint on the buildings began to blister, it appeared that the end was near for the town; but the winds abruptly shifted, forcing the fire north toward the Lewis River where it burned itself out relatively quickly.
In both Washington and Oregon it is thought that the Yacolt Burn devastated over 500,000 acres of forest. In just five days the fire caused more destruction than anything else in our region’s history. Its power would be unmatched until 1980, when Mount St. Helens’ eruption leveled forests. Until the wildfire season of 2014, the Yacolt Burn would be the largest fire in Washington State history for 112 years. Spared from the flames, the town of Yacolt slowly grew, becoming a quaint town in the shadow of Mount St. Helens.
Now, all but a few signs of this fire have vanished, with the majority of the forest regrowing to normal levels. In response to the fire of 1902, lawmakers in Washington State created the position of a state fire warden the following year, and in 1908 citizens of Washington helped create the Fire Protection Association, which established fire wardens and started a program of fire prevention on private lands.
The forest that burned is now largely known as Yacolt Burn State Forest, a 90,000-acre swath of land that rests in Cowlitz, Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties. To see where the fire swept through the region, the United State Forest Service has put together a self-guided driving tour full of the Yacolt Burn, providing detailed information and history. Starting near Stabler on the Wind River Highway, the road weaves west, offering nine stops before reaching Yacolt.