PAT NEAL: Give Canada break on smokey air

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news, when we learned the value of things we take for granted, such as clean air.

With the fires raging across the border in British Columbia, it’s been like living in a smokehouse around here.

While it might be gratifying to blame the Canadians for polluting our atmosphere, you don’t have to look back in time very far to know that we have done plenty of that ourselves.

There was the Native American tradition of burning the prairies every three to five years to kill weeds, attract game and encourage a variety of plants used for food and medicine.

On June 9, 1852, Col. Isaac Ebey, the Customs collector for Puget Sound who lived on Whidbey Island, observed a great deal of smoke coming from the Olympic Peninsula, which was probably caused by the S’Klallams setting fires.

That’s how they maintained the Sequim Prairie for thousands of years.

In the dry summer of 1868, smoke from forest fires was so thick that sailing ships in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound had to navigate by compass.

One captain gave up and anchored in the smoke, reporting that dead birds fell by the hundreds around the ship.

The early homesteaders looked upon the inexhaustible forests as nothing more than coniferous weeds that got in the way of modern agriculture.

They generally had one basic tool to clear their stump ranches, and that was fire — and fires got away.

All you have to do is look at a map and notice names such as Burnt Hill, Burnt Mountain, Mount Baldy and Baldy Ridge or look at some of the old photographs of the mountains above Sequim and Port Angeles, with the bare hills in the background, to know that almost all of the Peninsula has burned up at one time or another.

In the book, “Dungeness: The Lure of the River,” there is a description of a neighborhood feud in the 1870s in which one neighbor tried to burn out another by starting a forest fire.

The wind shifted, and the fire burned all of the foothills above Sequim.

Sept. 12, 1902, saw the smokiest day on record when homesteaders on the Queets and Hoh rivers saw the sky go dark shortly after sunrise from a cloud of ash coming from the Yacolt burn on the Lewis River in Clark County.

Chris Morgenroth was a Bogachiel homesteader who became a Forest Service ranger.

He invented a new way to fight forest fires in 1907 when a rotten log that had been smoldering underground just west of Lake Crescent burst into flames with a strong east wind, starting the Sol Duc Fire.

Morgenroth used dynamite to blast a fire trail, but not before 12,000 acres were torched.

The burn was replanted by 1910 only to be burned again in 1926 after a passing motorist tossed a cigarette out the window.

That was nothing compared to the Forks Fire of 1951, when more smoldering logs from another fire that was supposed to be out were fanned into flames by another east wind.

It burned 38,000 acres and almost incinerated Forks before the wind shifted.

Since then, we seldom have a summer when the woods were not on fire somewhere around here.

The Queets Fire of 2015 was started that May by a lightning strike and burned until the fall rains put it out.

While it might feel good to blame the Canadians for polluting the air, we’ve done a pretty good job of it ourselves.

_________

Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild life@gmail.com.

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