PBS American Experience is broadcasting a history of The Big Burn, the catastropic 1910 forest fire in the Northern Rockies that killed 78 firefighters.
5-6 September 2014
We heard the sirens starting around 9 p.m. while we watched evening television, but that’s not unusual living as close as we live to a firehouse, although most of the time the siren is a medical run. But they multiplied and came from all directions after a while, and didn’t stop until midnight as one mutual aid company after another arrived from all over the county to help the city fire department and the Oregon Department of Forestry with a brush and grass fire that blew up as they tend to do at the end of a day with 90-degree heat and 25 percent humidity—a red flag warning day of high fire risk. Sheriff and police units added to the cacophony as they converged on threatened neighborhoods to start a mandatory evacuation. Small in acreage compared to most wildland fires, but this was a classic wildland urban interface fire, and the incident commanders acted rapidly to block the fire from reaching homes; they pulled resources in as fast as possible and ordered an evacuation given how close people lived to the incinerating brush and grass and trees. Just in case.
The 86 acre burn (about 66 football fields) is located on the north side of town where that wildland urban interface (a public land manager term) has grown in the last few years as more and more houses and rowhouses and apartment buildings were built next to a city park that borders the 5000-acre McDonald State Forest you see at the top of the aerial image. People like living up the hill on 29th because they can walk out their front door and five minutes later they’re on a hiking trail in the park and on into the forest. Nice life, and I have hiked those trails through what’s now a burn up the ridge and into the forest, and my daughter and I would pick blackberries up there each summer, but I wouldn’t live on that ridge.
Down here on the flats we bought a house near the fire department, a house with a hydrant next door, and we have our water connected to a faucet stand in the backyard with two Y connectors, each with a long hose used most of the time for watering flowers, but ready also for the special nozzle I keep in the garage ready to connect if needed.
We had a yard sale last summer and this guy stops to buy the three window fans we were selling after we’d finally used a tax return to install a heat pump. He grabbed the fans and claimed he’d been told before he moved to western Oregon that the summers were mild. We smiled and explained Oregon weather. We have two seasons in lowland western Oregon: wet and hot. As in 90+ and sometimes 100+ during the summer. With low humidity and no rain. You could also say the lowland seasons are monsoon and fire season. Forest and grasslands dry each summer and the fires start, most often ignited by lightning, and every summer we get red flag warnings like the one on September 5th when the temps rose over 90 and the humidity dropped into the 20s.
Since the fire started after dark in the park away from homes, no one spotted it until flames flared in the usual evening breeze and lit the night sky as they made a run downhill toward, as firefighters say, occupied structures from mini-mansions to rowhousess to apartment buildings.
The evacuation order was lifted by 1:30 a.m., and then the morning of September 6th I hiked up 29th with hordes of other gawkers to photograph the damage and apparatus and talk briefly with exhausted firefighters. Mop up would take days, but they’d stopped the burn literally at back porches before anything but the porches was singed but for one dwelling that suffered structural damage the next morning when a flying ember lurking behind siding during the night lit up. CFD made a quick stop that confined the fire to that outside wall.
I’m glad I live where I do with the public servants we have, and pay my taxes without complaint because I do not want the town to turn into the one with the conflagration I wrote about in “Engine 10.” I thanked the dead-tired engine crews at each of the three fire trucks I visited on my hike up 29th. They’d been up all night.
Barry Roberts Greer
author, Seven Two, Pipe Nozzle, Engine 10, Of Cowards and Firefighters