The Tillamook Burn was on its roaring way and would scourge nearly 300,000 acres before the work of firefighters and moist western winds slowed the spread. The autumn rains finally quelled the blaze, but not before 12 billion board feet of timber had been killed. Remarkably, only one person died in the fire. On the big ‘blow-up’ day, the Tillamook exploded through 200,000 acres of huge timber in 20 hours, its terrible heat generating hurricanes of fire. Ships far out to sea were shrouded in the fire’s smoke as ashes fell among them. In the city of Portland, 50 miles away, smoke and ashes hindered driving. Much of the forest was privately owned, but many of the landowners relinquished their ownership to county governments. They figured there was no value left to the land after the timber was killed. It wasn’t worth paying the minimal taxes. This was well before timber was generally recognised as a perpetually renewable crop.
The counties passed on much of the tax-foreclosed land to the Oregon Department of Forestry. In turn, the department agreed to share future harvest income with them. Meanwhile, many recognised the value of the dead snags. An entire industry grew up around that salvage, which continued for 25 years after the first fire. Five or six inches of rot might have to be barked off the huge logs, but there was still plenty of good clear wood ready for sawing or peeling. Several large sawmills started sawing the material during the US’ worst economic depression. The first salvage logging took only the highest-value material. Then, as the economy gradually improved, lesser-grade material became merchantable. Through the years some sites were salvaged a half-dozen times as values increased. During World War II the US Navy built two huge airship hangars on the outskirts of the nearby town of Tillamook. These housed 252ft airships which flew cover over Pacific-bound convoys, seeking submarines.
After the war, Roy Gould built an entire Diamond Lumber Co plywood plant inside one of the hangars with plenty of room to spare. At the time, these hangars were billed as the largest wooden buildings in the world, being 1,072 feet long and 192 feet high, each covering more than seven acres. Timber Structures in Portland, Oregon, made the prefabricated trusses. The doors were 120ft high and 220ft wide. One of the hangars was destroyed in a 1992 fire, while the other is now an aircraft museum. Mr Gould developed a specialised veneer core drying line which, unfortunately, didn’t work out. Chains with close-mounted 3ft-high wickets ran through a long drying chamber and core sheets were placed between the wickets to emerge as dry core at the end, but the wickets would hang up, tear off, and regularly disrupt the line.
Some salvage loggers worked nearly their entire careers without touching a live tree. Before the black char weathered off the snags, the burn loggers’ smudged, black faces made them instantly recognisable by their mates who worked in green timber. The Tillamook evolved into a six-year jinx with fires – most nearly as large – following in 1939, 1945 and 1951. That jinx wasn’t broken until 1957 when salvage work from the original fire was being completed. Since then, more sophisticated fire prevention measures have kept fire levels to a manageable minimum. Earlier, fuel levels built up during the six-year period. An entire generation of Portland area school children grew up around the Tillamook Burn. Hundreds of them planted seedlings in the huge areas lacking a natural seed source. They still take a personal interest in what is now the Tillamook Forest.
State forestry crews planted the tougher ground and small helicopters direct-seeded thousands of acres. It was all part of one of the world’s largest reforestation projects, with 72m seedlings planted. Today, 73 years after that first fire, what was once an endless sea of dead snags, is now a green and growing forest. It’s not huge old growth, but some trees will probably end up like that after 200 years or so. Some trees have already been harvested and replanted, but pressure groups try to block harvesting, as they do elsewhere; they want the forest to be used only for recreation, homes for wildlife and as a water source. The department recognises all the attributes with a plan that calls for sustainable timber harvesting to improve the forest’s health and to contribute revenue to local schools and counties. Children and adults alike can see the whole story in the new museum.
The 13,500ft2 installation on a 40-acre site lies along the Wilson River which was one of the main drainages ravaged by the fire. A 40ft-high fire lookout tower is the first structure spotted from the parking lot. Weyerhaeuser Company provided most of the financing for a striking 250ft pedestrian bridge spanning the river. It provides access to a 25-mile trail through the forest. A number of interpretive trails surround the centre, while tall trees planted by the school children surround it all. The US$13.5m project has been financed entirely by private and industry donations from the Collins Foundation, Weyerhaeuser, Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Starker Forests, the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and more than 350 others. The centre is a showcase for natural and recycled materials, as well as energy conservation. Wood pellets made from manufacturing residues heat it. Most of the construction wood came either from the site or elsewhere in the Tillamook Forest. All the framing material – 2x4in through 2x12in – was grown, harvested, and milled less than 30 miles away.
The centre has garnered many awards for its planning and construction. It includes a 60-seat multi-media theatre, educational panels, old photos, forest management models, old tools and everything appropriate for such an historic story. Descriptions of current sustainable forest management techniques are important components. An aged steam logging yarder, salvaged from nearby, is housed on one side of the double building, which is rather reminiscent of an old-time logging camp. Columbia Helicopters, which is involved in logging and forest fire fighting, flew it to the centre. Doug Decker described the project, which was authorised by the state legislature in 1991. Mr Decker, who had been the department’s public affairs director, was assigned to be project leader with complete responsibility, including fund raising, planning, construction and operation.
"This is not just about a building," he said. "It’s a people story. We have programmes for kids and adults to create an audience and interest. In our first summer we’re getting about 650 visitors a day. We lead hikes every weekend to show how things have moved from being a moonscape to the present heavy forest." It provides an opportunity for the present generation, most not linked with forestry, to see what fire, forestry and the forest industry are all about.