Starting in 1933, a series of catastrophic wildfires — collectively known as the Tillamook Burn — destroyed tens of thousands of acres along the Northern Oregon Coast Range. With eerie regularity, the fires erupted in the same region at approximately six-year intervals through 1951.
The fires resulted in one of the world’s largest reforestation efforts with 72 million seedlings planted by hand. Today, the Tillamook State Forest stands as the living legacy of the devastation and renewal of the Tillamook Burn.
The cycle begins: Unprecedented weather
In 1933, the Pacific Northwest baked under unusually hot, dry weather. That year, the rainforests of the Oregon Coast turned parched, creating tinderbox conditions perfect for wildfire.
On Monday, Aug. 14, temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees. Many logging companies voluntarily stopped working. However, at the time, no law required them to halt operations when fire conditions turned hazardous. According to most reports, a crew in the coastal mountains 50 miles west of Portland kept working, sparking the first blaze.
The September 1952 Scientific Monthly described the scene: “From the logged area the fire spread into the standing forest and by evening the front of the fire had reached and crossed the summit of the coast range several miles away.”
The remote location and unprecedented weather made firefighting difficult, allowing the blaze to grow and spread unchecked.
A firestorm erupts
Then, 10 days later, the winds kicked up while humidity dropped. The initial blaze sparked several others all along the north coast, producing great plumes of black smoke that blotted out the sun. “Tillamook has become a city of perpetual night,” reported the Oregonian.
Fires jumped rivers and engulfed whole mountainsides. At one point, several fires merged into a conflagration so massive it created its own lightning and winds, exploding into a firestorm.
“— The Oregon Statesman, Aug. 24, 1933
Mountain top after mountain top in the stricken area has been burned bare by the blasting fires.”
Over 240,000 acres of timber burned in 20 hours. The Oregonian reported, “With terrifying speed, sparks were scattered in tinder-like stubble.”
Across the West Coast, young men from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s recently formed Civilian Conservation Corps arrived to fight the growing fires. It would take September rains to finally put the fires out.
Oregon’s Deputy State Forester at the time, Lynn Cronemiller, later recalled: “In all my years as Oregon’s State Forester, I never saw anything that even approached this burn. The most we ever succeeded at doing was to hold the line temporarily; at times, we were positively overwhelmed.”
In this video clip from Oregon Experience’s 2009 documentary “Civilian Conservation Corps,” former CCC recruits discuss their role in the Tillamook Burn.
The first Tillamook fire of 1933 began a cycle of destructive blazes that continued to ravage the area in 1939, 1945 and 1951. Together the fires destroyed vast areas of old-growth forest, totaling about 355,000 acres, causing profound environmental, economic and social repercussions for the coastal region.
The devastation prompted Oregon voters to approve a bond measure for reforestation and protection of the burned areas.
Beginning in 1949, the Oregon Department of Forestry led efforts to plant more than 72 million seedlings. It was the world’s most extensive reforestation effort at the time. Forest workers, inmates and volunteers hand planted young seeds. School groups trekked to the burned areas to study the ecosystem and help plant trees. Helicopters dropped a billion seeds from the sky.
With time, and patience, the efforts paid off.
A new beginning
On July 18, 1973, Oregon Gov. Tom McCall officially renamed the Tillamook Burn site the Tillamook State Forest. It makes up 364,000 acres of publicly owned land, much of it rainforest, managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry. At the time, Gov. McCall said, “We refer to these 350,000 acres now as the Tillamook State Forest, but to many Oregonians, this will continue to be the Tillamook Burn. So be it. Somehow it is a term that has found a home in our affections. And if continues to remind us to be careful with fire, then Tillamook Burn will serve us beyond measure.”
Today, visitors can learn about the Tillamook Burn and the monumental reforestation project at the state’s Tillamook Forestry Center, which recently reopened after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.