Tillamook Forest- An Unusual Woods

Photo: National Archives http://research.archives.gov/description/299510
“… the situation commands national concern and extraordinary measures.”

Sinclair Wilson’s report was published one month after the infernal flames of the Tillamook fire were extinguished by seasonal rains on September 5,1933 and left to smolder.  Where men had failed, nature prevailed…

“A high wind, low humidity and dry burnable fuel carried fire of small beginnings over a sizable area and then within 20 hours swept over America’s largest remaining fine stand of privately-owned timber, affecting in greatest measure invested capital, employment of men, county and state finances, and the future use and ownership of this land, and calling for stupendous concerted private and public effort to salvage whatever values remain. This, in brief, is the scope of the debacle of August 14 to 25, 1933, in the high country of Tillamook,Washington and Yamhill counties, Oregon. It is called “The Tillamook Fire.” Although insufficient time has elapsed to gather reasonably accurate fire loss data, enough is known to convince me that the situation commands national concern and extraordinary measures.” (Sinclair Wilson)

Seen from a plane, conditions were ripe for the catastrophic fire storm eruption that sent crews fleeing from the forest for their lives. The fire’s intensity created its own weather system so strong trees were literally ejected from the ground by fire-generated winds. Limited forest access, primitive fire-fighting capacity, and weather conditions meant leaving the fire to take its own course until the Northwest seasonal Autumn rains naturally extinguished the blaze.

Fire disturbance didn’t stop with the 1933 fire. Sinclair Wilson’s statement, “…the situation commands national concern and extraordinary measures,” was to be a situation repeated in 1939, 1945, 1951. The 1933 fire primed the landscape for additional fires.  In 1939,  209,000 acres were burned, including 19,000 acres of previously unburned forest; in 1945,  two fires burned 182,000 acres, almost all of which had previously burned; and in 1951, two fires burned a total of 32,700 acres of forest. In total, 355,000 acres (554 square miles) were ravaged by the fires that collectively were called The Tillamook Burn.

The charred landscape created an economically ruinous situation; made worse due to the Depression years. The story of the Tillamook Burn is bitter-sweet.  By 1951, many forest landowners let taxes go delinquent and forfeited lands to the county. The county government, in turn, transferred property into state ownership with an agreement that they would receive a portion of future revenues from timber harvests. The Oregon Department of Forestry initiated fire protection and reforestation programs to prevent future fires and to restore the blackened landscape once more to green forest.

Between 1949 and 1972, more than 72 million seedlings were planted by hand across the former burned area, and a billion Douglas-fir seeds were dropped from helicopters. Young people from throughout northwest Oregon came to The Burn in buses and helped plant almost a million seedlings. In the process, a most unusual forest was planted.

Finally, in 1973, Governor Tom McCall formally closed the era of fire recovery by dedicating the lands once consumed by “The Tillamook Burn” as the Tillamook State Forest.

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The legacy of these most unusual woods…

The legacy of these most unusual woods comes alive at the Tillamook Forest Center.  With the Tillamook State Forest,  Wilson River, and Jones Creek close by, our Oregon Master Naturalist class met at the museum to learn about forests and riparian zones.

Denise Berkshsire, Lead Educator at the Tillamook Forest Center, lead the class through hands-on experiences through-out the museum. The goal? To enrich our understanding of the social and natural history of the Tillamook Forest.

The Tillamook Burn- How has fire impacted this section of Coast Range temperate rain forest?

We began our day of learning at the Tillamook Forest Center with “Legacy of Fire,” a multimedia video. This outstanding production provided vivid background about how this unusual woods came to be.

(To view full photo… please click on a photo to open slideshow.)

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After viewing the video, we were eager to break into five discovery groups for the purpose of gathering information from the five theme zones located in the museum’s exhibits. Scavenger Hunt-style, each group went to an assigned area, collected facts, and reported to the whole class later.

Early Coast Range Forest-  How was the landscape of the Coast Range forest shaped by the elements?

Rainfall, climate, and latitude greatly influence the dynamics of this temperate rain forest.

Wonder what epiphytes are? The moist habitat of the Temperate rainforest is home to epiphytes that use a host plant for support, but produce their own energy from photosynthesis by obtaining moisture and nutrients from the air. Lichens and mosses are examples seen in the Coast Range forests, often found on nurse logs.

Early Life in the Tillamook- Historically, how have people interacted with the forest?

Exhibits compare and contrast how Native peoples (Tillamook and Calapuya) and early explorers, homesteaders, loggers and road-builders used the coastal forests.

The Tillamook Burn- How powerful is fire; and what are the long-term implications of the 1933,1939, 1945, 1951 massive fires?

Displays augmented the dramatic footage we watched in the multi-sensory theater during “The Legacy of Fire” and further emphasized the severe impacts to nature and human lives.

The Hand Planted Forest- What are the stories behind the planting years of the 1950s, 60s and early 1970s?

Forest management decisions were made with the best information at the time in terms of reforestation and fire management. However, what resulted as the forest legacy left to future generations is most unusual because the reseeding was accomplished through the planting a single species of trees- Douglas Fir.

The Forest of Today and Tomorrow- How are forestry decisions made that are socially, economically, and ecologically responsible for life now and into the future?

Today’s silviculturists are applying structure-based management strategies to manage the forest in ways that mimic natural patterns of growth. The goal is to restore Coast Range forest ecology attributes that are absent from the Tillamook forest including: a variety of native tree species, nurse logs, and variation in tree ages and sizes. Creating conditions that foster sustainable forest outcomes will support the social, economic, and ecologic benefits and values for which the Tillamook Forest is being managed.

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What is a stream?

I appreciate the way Oregon Master Naturalist studies are creating an opportunity to look deeper into science topics that, up until now, I’ve considered at rather basic and fundamental levels.

“What is a stream?” Is one of those questions that seems fundamental. However, Mark A. Meleason, a Riparian and Aquatic Specialist for Oregon Department of Forestry’s State Forests Division, opened a forum that lead to a much more complex look at and discussion about stream systems and dynamics.

Although a stream is a system of flowing water within an ecosystem… it is far more than simply a synonym for a brook, creek, or river. I was fascinated by, pardon the pun, the depth of detail Mark provided to help us more fully comprehend the multitude of systems at work in a stream. My mind was racing and tumbling like a kayak in class 5 whitewater as he talked about: flow rates, macro pores & micro pores, field capacity,  chemical reactions & stickiness of soils, effects of clear cutting, variable source area concept and hyporheic flow paths, wood structures & nutrient spiraling, stream velocity & movement of sediments… and… how this all relates to the biology of stream habitats!

Walking out on the suspension bridge that connects one stream bank to the other on this stretch of the Wilson River allowed a complex survey of what lay inside our view. Walking along the river channel was done with a more discerning eye. We could appreciate many elements of a healthy stream system/ riparian zone with Mark’s commentary along the way.

Thinking about riparian zone plants…

Denise continued to energize our understandings and connections with the forest. From an inspirational reading from her favorite naturalist book, Tree:  A Life Story, by David Suzuki to plant identification and trivia… we were wiser naturalists at the end of our time on the trail with her.

Also, I know I was much more appreciative of the unusual woods in which we stood…


I am reading, Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder, and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants, by William Dietrich, and am impressed by the deeper understanding and comprehension I have for concepts detailed in the book. I think my Oregon Master Naturalist studies are paying off!

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Tillamook Forest Center; http://www.tillamookforestcenter.org/index.html

Oregon’s Generous Forests; 
Forestry Videos & Natural Resource (Southern Regional Extension Forestry); http://www.forestryvideos.net 
The Oregon Encyclopedia; http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/tillamook_burn/
National Archives OPA Online Public Access; 
Tillamook Fire, PDFs, Tillamook Fire
Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder, and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants; Dietrich, Univ. of WA Press, 2003.


      1. Are you a naturalist?! You have a very good eye. The bird is an American Dipper. They are a common bird of fast, usually noisy streams that have protective shelf. The dipper plunges head-first into fast-moving water looking for aquatic insects, and propelling itself underwater with wings.If a large insect is caught, the Dipper smashes it against the rocks before eating.

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