PAT NEAL: Up in smoke

THOSE WHO IGNORE history are doomed to watch television.

This enduring truth is nowhere more evident than the current notion that the smoke from wildfires is the end of the world as we know it.

Sure, we can blame Californian, British Columbian and even Siberian fires for the smoke, but there is plenty of Washington smoke to go around.

Our own Maple Fire down on the Hamma Hamma River is a 1,779-acre smoky mess that was only 41 percent contained as of Monday.

It is expected to creep west and burn until the snow flies.

It should come as no surprise the Maple Fire is being investigated as human caused, because most of them are.

That’s what humans do.

The Native Americans traditionally burned 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 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.

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.

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.

All you have to do is look at a map of the Olympics to notice names like 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.

To be fair, lightning causes a lot of fires, but the usual suspects include campers, berry pickers, hunters, loggers and even boys setting fire to a hornet’s nest.

That’s how the great Yacolt fire in southern Washington started Sept. 8, 1902. It traveled 30 miles in 36 hours and destroyed 238,920 acres.

On Sept. 12, homesteaders in the Hoh and Queets river valleys saw the sky go dark shortly after sunrise from a cloud of smoke and ash coming from the Yacolt burn.

With the invention of the automobile, motorists began starting forest fires by chucking smokes out the window.

This is how the Sol Duc Burn of 1926 started west of Lake Crescent, burning trees that had been planted after the previous Sol Duc Burn of 1907. That fire had torched 12,000 acres.

That was nothing compared to the Forks Fire of Sept. 18, 1951, when more smoldering logs from another fire that was supposed to be out were fanned into flames by another east wind.

It burned 30,000 acres and almost incinerated Forks before the wind shifted. Since then we have seldom had a summer when the woods were not on fire somewhere around here.

The Queets fire of 2015 was started in June by a lightning strike and burned until the fall rains put it out.

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

Smoky air sucks but it’s not the end of the world.


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

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