Ninety years ago to the day, a logging crew at the end of a railroad spur in the upper reaches of the Gales Creek Watershed inadvertently sparked a wildfire.
It changed Oregon forever, altering the economy, giving rise to communities and decimating others, changed how we fight wildfires, sparked myths of a curse seeped into the Coast Range, and killed one very unfortunate man.
It created the Tillamook State Forest as we know it today.
And as this story is prepared for publishing, it’s an eerie echo of the times: A glance at a thermometer in Gales Creek, just a few miles from where the original fire started shows 104 degrees today, the same temperature 90 years ago today when the first spark took hold of the tinder-dry forest in 1933.
To mark the occasion, we’ve gathered newspaper clippings from three local newspapers in operation at the time, as well as an entry from the Oregon Encyclopedia describing the Tillamook Burn, oral history surrounding the fire, and the written diary of Esther Lilly Hundley (My great-grandmother) who lived in Gales Creek and saw her family members among the first to fight the fire the day it began.
Start here to get an overview of the Tillamook Burn in an Oregon Encyclopedia entry written by former Oregon State Forester Doug Decker.
Then, read the news clippings from three newspapers in the aftermath, including one foreboding entry from the days before the fire started.
And take a look at the words Esther Lilly Hundley wrote. Hundley wrote the Gales Creek-area Fir Creek neighborhood news column for the Washington County News-Times in the early part of the 20th century, and chronicled the early moments of the local response to the fire in her personal diaries.
Finally, listen to the recollections of one man who was very personally touched by the fire: The first fire started in his father’s logging operation.
On Monday, August 7, 1933, a group went up to Lee Falls, then (and now) a popular but hard-to-reach swimming hole near the Cherry Grove community. There, they discovered something disturbing: An unattended campfire still smoldering. It was put out, a fire warden fetched, and an unknown fisherman blamed for the indiscretion. The story ends with this remark, a grim prophecy of what was to come seven days later: “A fire started now will do very serious damage to the growing timber.”
This newspaper clipping is from the August 18 1933 edition of the Vernonia Eagle, a long-defunct newspaper that covered the Vernonia region.
This newspaper clipping is from the August 17 1933 edition of the Hillsboro Argus, which ceased publication in 2017.
These clippings came from the August 17, 1933 edition of the Washington County News-Times.
These clippings came from the August 24, 1933 edition of the Washington County News-Times.
And finally, from the diaries of Esther Lilly Hundley, her recolections of the days leading up to and the day of the fire.
From July 30 to August 14 (with three days missed when she did not write), Esther described the weather as “hot,” “clear & hot,” and “a hot day,” a personal touch to the known weather records of the time.
On August 14, 1933, the day the fire started, here is what she had to say.
“A hot old day, 92. I did up work early. Then picked & canned 12 qt beans for Dick and Oscar. Canned 5 qt apple sauce for hop picking. A fire broke out in Lyda’s logging this afternoon. Bill & Ted (her sons) had to fight fire. Elsie came down to let us know. Was 9:30 when Ted got home.”
Esther would go on to mention the fire a few more times:
Thursday, August 17 – “Ted had to fight fire.”
Friday August 18 – “The mill started up again today after the fire.”
Monday August 21 – “The fire is still going strong.”
Wednesday August 23 – “Smokey. Clear and hot. I did the wash and other usual work. In p.m. went with Sis and Mary to clean the school house. Bill & Ted both fighting fire.
Thursday, August 24 – “Hot & Smokey. The fire still raiging strong. About 200 men fighting it.”
Friday August 25 – “The boys did not go to fight fire today. But it is still going strong. One C.C. boy got killed today by the fire.”