On 60th anniversary today, Great Forks Fire still sparks legend for valiant efforts
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Smoke rises above the forest near the start of the blaze that would become the Great Forks Fire of 1951. -- Forks Timber Museum collection

By Mavis Amundson
For Peninsula Daily News

Earlier this month, more than 180 wildfires broke out in Texas, a state suffering from drought and a record-breaking heat wave.

In one Texas county alone, Bastrop, fires burned about 34,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,500 homes and killed at least two people.

The hot summer in Texas and the wildfires of September bring to mind the enormous and fast-moving fire that swept across the North Olympic Peninsula and almost destroyed the town of Forks 60 years ago today on Sept. 20, 1951.

It’s called the Great Forks Fire.

On that fall day, many Forks residents crossed the boundary of everyday life and entered the realm of heroism and legend.

As the massive fire raced toward the town, people made valiant stands against the flames.

Their courage, plus a miraculous wind-shift, spared the community from almost certain destruction.

Like Texas, the summer of 1951 was unusually dry in the Northwest.

In the fall, dozens of forest fires broke out in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Northern California.

The Great Forks Fire got its initial start a few weeks before the big blowup.

In early August, a fire started along a railroad line west of Lake Crescent near Camp Creek.

The blaze burned about 1,600 acres of public and private forest land before firefighters contained it.

But the embers were never completely extinguished.

The fire continued to smolder, undetected, in a fallen log, a stump or under the forest floor.

Then, on the early morning of Sept. 20, gale-force winds out of the east acted like a bellows and rekindled the blaze.

The fire quickly became an inferno that raced across treetops and threw billows of smoke into the sky.

The blaze sped down the Calawah River valley toward Forks, covering about 18 miles in less than a day.

In Forks, embers began raining down on rooftops and yards.

Authorities ordered the town evacuated.

Hundreds wisely stuffed their cars with belongings and fled.

But many others stayed behind in a courageous bid to save their community.

They grabbed hoses and watered down houses and businesses.

They used whatever tools were available — bulldozers, shovels, garden hoses, outdated firefighting equipment and the city’s pitiful water system.

On every block, men and women stamped out falling embers.

“There was nobody sitting still anywhere,” recalled Vic Ulin, one of the volunteer firefighters.

Their actions — along with a blessed wind shift — spared the town.

Afterwards, the community was lauded for successfully standing up to the flames. (All in all, about 33,000 acres were burned.)

Earl Clark, city editor of the Port Angeles Evening News (now Peninsula Daily News), was in Forks that eventful day.

He wrote:

“The fact that the town is still there — most of it at least — is a tribute to the dogged persistence and guts of a couple of hundred sturdy men.”

Oscar Herd, then the acting fire chief of Forks, said:

“We couldn’t have saved the town without them.”

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Northwest historian Mavis Amundson is a former Peninsula Daily News reporter and desk editor. She now lives in Seattle.

Amundson wrote The Great Forks Fire, a book about the 1951 forest fire.

She is also the author of the true-crime book The Lady of the Lake, about a murdered woman whose body was found in Lake Crescent in 1940.

Amundson’s first book was Sturdy Folk, a collection of memoirs about life on the North Olympic Peninsula in the early 20th century.

All three books are for sale at the Peninsula Daily News’ office in Port Angeles and at local bookstores.

Last modified: September 19. 2011 11:52PM
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