PAT NEAL: Things could be worse

THERE ARE FEW sounds more comforting than the steady drumming of heavy rain on the roof.

Still, some people have a phobic reaction to rain.

That is until they are reminded that it is better to have rain than smoke.

You’d have to be living under a rock somewhere to not have seen the disturbing images of the Amazon rainforest, Africa, Siberia, Alaska and Canada on fire.

Locally, 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 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.

Forest fires are part of our heritage going back as long as there have been forests.

We’ve seldom had a summer when the woods were not on fire somewhere.

Until now.

This year, our only excuse for a forest fire was a puny little lightning strike up the Elwha River that has probably been put out by the rain by the time you read this.

Compare this to the 2015 fire up the Queets River that was started by lightning in June.

It burned until the fall rains put it out, polluting our pristine air with thick smoke that smelled of burning dirt in every direction depending on which way the wind blew.

That was nothing compared to other monster historic burns.

The Forks Fire of Sept. 20, 1951, started when dry conditions and a strong east wind reignited a fire that was supposed to be out just west of Lake Crescent.

It rode the wind to the west traveling 17 miles in eight hours, burning 30,000 acres and almost incinerating Forks before the wind shifted.

In July 1907, another fire that was thought to be out burst into flames.

A buried log had been smoldering underground just to the west of Lake Crescent.

It reignited with a strong east wind.

Known as the Sol Duc Burn, it traveled 11 miles to Bear Creek in five hours, scorching 12,800 acres.

This prompted the Forest Service to initiate the first reforestation project on the Olympic Peninsula which was burned again in 1926 when a passing motorist on the newly completed Olympic Highway tossed a burning cigarette out the window.

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.

In the book, “Dungeness, the Lure of the River” there is a description of a neighborhood feud in the 1870s 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.

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.

Before the European invasion there was the Medieval Warm Period from about 900 to 1300 A.D. when it’s been speculated that the entire Olympic Peninsula burned.

Long before Medieval times, Native Americans traditionally set fires to maintain prairies for hunting and gathering.

Massive forest fires are part of our heritage, so just remember: No matter how much you hate the rain, the smoke could be worse.

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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 patneal [email protected].