PAT NEAL: A short history of fire

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news, but we still have plenty of fresh air.

Washed by the ocean, the rain and the trees, our air is perhaps the purist on earth.

It’s a blessing we should not take for granted, given the history of fire on the Peninsula that sometimes made it seem like we were living in a smokehouse.

Maybe we’re just lucky, but according to fireweather, there are no fires on the Peninsula to pollute the air, endanger our homes and devastate our woods.

We should count our blessings.

The entire Olympic Peninsula has burned at one time or another.

Legends tell of a great fire about 800 years ago that burned from Lake Quinault to Cape Flattery.

That would have been during what paleoclimatologists call the Medieval Warm Period.

By studying ice cores, tree rings and lake sediments, they determined it was a period of drought in the Western United States that could have been caused by increased solar activity, decreased volcanic activity and changes in ocean current circulation.

Fire scars on old growth trees tell us the east and south sides of the Peninsula also burned 300 to 500 years ago.

These fires could have been caused by lightning or humans.

Native Americans burned prairies every three to five years to clear land, attract game and cultivate camas, cranberry and bracken fern, and at least 80 different plants used for food, medicine and technology.

On June 9, 1852, Col. Ebey, the Customs Collector for Puget Sound living 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.

European homesteaders looked upon the inexhaustible forests as weeds that got in the way of agriculture.

In his book, “The Northwest Coast,” James Swan described a forest fire started as part of a Fourth of July celebration in 1852 that burned until the fall rains.

Our pioneers used fire to clear their stump ranches and these fires got away.

A book about Sequim, “Dungeness, the Lure of the River” describes a neighborhood feud in the 1890s, where 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 and Port Angeles.

Old photographs of these towns show bare hills in the background. All you have to do is look at a map of the Olympics to notice names like Burnt Hill, Burnt Mountain, Mt. Baldy and Baldy Ridge.

With the invention of the automobile, motorists started forest fires by chucking cigarettes out the window.

That’s how the 12,000-acre Sol Duc Burn of 1926 started west of Lake Crescent, burning trees that had been planted in the previous Sol Duc Burn of 1907.

That was nothing compared to the Forks Fire of Sept. 20, 1951, when buried, smoldering logs from another fire that was supposed to be out were fanned into flames by an east wind that pushed the fire 18 miles west in eight hours.

It burned 38,000 acres and almost incinerated Forks.

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

But there are no fires now.

Let’s keep it that way.

Most forest fires are caused by people who refuse to follow these simple rules.

Please keep your campfire to less than 1 acre.

If you are not sure you can do that, do not have a campfire. It’s really OK to camp without fire. The tree you save could be your own.


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

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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