‘Tillamook Burn’ Sparks Ambitious Proposals Among Oregon Foresters


Looking out over the green sea of fir, hemlock and alder stretching from ridge top to ridge top, it’s hard to tell why this area is known as the Tillamook Burn.

But walk into one of the stands and the forest tells its own story. Young Douglas fir, 40 to 60 years old, form a dense canopy that shuts out sunlight to the ground below. Huge charred stumps of trees that were 500 years old at their death slowly rot on the forest floor.

First in 1933, and then every six years thereafter until 1951, fire raced through this forest that once was so dense that even the Indians ventured only into its edges. In all, the fires burned 360,882 acres.

In 1948, Oregonians approved a constitutional amendment authorizing $12 million in bonds to do something no one had ever tried on such a large scale. They would plant a new forest in the ashes of the huge burn.


The Tillamook State Forest, about 25 miles west of Portland, now is coming of age, raising promises of abundant timber for a region still reeling from logging cutbacks to protect the northern spotted owl.

“It’s an exciting time to be a forester,” said Ross Holloway, assistant to the northwest area director of the Oregon Department of Forestry, as he looked out over the young forest. “We have this sea of green. We can create the future here.”

Tillamook and Washington counties each received more than $5 million last year from timber thinning on the burn. The revenues should climb as the timber matures.

“We will be able to have decent schools, a decent courthouse. I’m sure we will be attracting more industry. We’ll employ more in the logging industry. It is exciting,” Tillamook County Commissioner Jerry Dove said.


There has been no large-scale logging of live trees on the Tillamook since Aug. 14, 1933, a day so hot and dry that the governor asked loggers to stop working for fear of starting a fire.

An outfit operating in Gales Creek Canyon outside Forest Grove was bringing in one last log. A spark flew, perhaps by a cable digging into a dry log, and ignited. The fire raced to the top of a tall snag and the dry east wind spread burning embers a half mile across the canyon.

Loggers and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps used shovels, axes and hoes to dig fire lines, but could do little to control the explosion of flames 250 feet high. Within one 20-hour period, the fire burned 200,000 acres, charring 12 billion board feet of timber, enough to build more than 1 million five-room homes.

In what came to be known as the six-year jinx, fire revisited the Tillamook in 1939, 1945 and 1951.


Unlike most forest fires, which leave pockets of live trees that drop seed on the charred ground, the Tillamook Burn killed practically all in its path.

Though some of the charred timber was salvaged, many landowners couldn’t pay their taxes, and the timberlands reverted to the counties.

The state took over the lands. Then the Board of Forestry planted 72 million seedlings. Helicopters scattered 1 billion seeds. Schools, Cub Scouts and churches joined in. Although the volunteers accounted for less than 1% of the reforestation, people around the state felt a part of it.

Secretary of State Phil Keisling, who grew up in nearby Beaverton, recalls his family collecting seed cones.


“There was a sense the Oregon community was rolling up its sleeves and doing something that had never been attempted in the world,” he said. “People had a palpable sense that in their own small individual way they were contributing to a much larger and extraordinarily farsighted goal.”

Dove remembers seeing the glow of the fire from 80 miles away as a child in Boring and coming to plant trees with his Boy Scout troop, school class and Sunday school.

“Like every youngster that planted those things, we thought we planted the whole thing,” he said.

In 1971, the Tillamook State Forest was dedicated, and the Oregon Department of Forestry began planning its future.


Learning the lessons of the spotted-owl battle, the department developed a harvest plan that tries to mimic the complex structure of an old-growth forest. The plan is to be completed this year.

The department also is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the recovery of threatened northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets nesting in the forest, to develop a habitat-conservation plan so that logging won’t harm wildlife.

“The key is we don’t have all the answers,” said Tillamook District Forester Mark Labhart. “We are trying to learn and adapt using good science. We know a lot about habitat for deer and elk. We don’t know about how many more chipmunks you get or what impact you have on amphibians.”

To find out, stands are thinned to various standards and researchers set out traps to find out what wildlife return.


Less than an hour’s drive from the Portland metropolitan area, the Tillamook is also an important recreation resource, popular with motorcycle riders, mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers and anglers. It offers 250 campsites and 20 miles of hiking trails.

An $8-million interpretive center telling the story of the Tillamook Burn and the reforestation is planned, as well as a trail along the Wilson River linking the campgrounds.

Though they don’t oppose the thinning, environmentalists worry that the long-range management plan doesn’t set aside much land as reserves for old growth, the way the national forests do.

“Beyond 10% of the forest, there will not be any other area to allow the natural process to take place or to thin only to make sure the forest gets older and older and older,” said Sybil Ackerman of the National Wildlife Federation.


Some environmentalists go so far as to suggest turning the entire forest into a state park--a proposal Labhart doesn’t think is needed.

“We are trying to produce habitat for fish and wildlife, timber for the economy and at the same time providing for recreation,” Labhart said. “I think we can do it all.”