CHAPTER 1. 

INTRODUCTION: HYPOTHESIS AND SETTING

It would be difficult to find a reason why the Indians should care one way or another if the forest burned.  It is quite something else again to contend that the Indians used fire systematically to "improve" the forest . . . yet this fantastic idea has been and still is put forth time and again.

C. R. Clark 1959: 7

When the forest burned, fires were often of high intensity and uncontrollable.  The tribes of coastal Oregon were the victims of some of these fires, having been driven to the waters of the Pacific Ocean to survive.

James Agee 1993: 56

Between 1840 and 1850 an abrupt transformation took place in western Oregon that resulted in permanent and large-scale changes to the region's forest and grassland environments.  During that decade dozens of local American Indian nations and tribes were all but replaced by a comparatively homogenous population of European American immigrants.  Many wildlife species were subsequently decimated and extirpated in favor of domesticated plants and animals: California condors, grizzly bears, wolves, and whitetail deer gave way to chickens, cattle and swine; fields of camas and tarweed were transformed to corn, potatoes and wheat.  Even fire was affected.  Expansive grasslands that were annually fired to produce and harvest food crops were plowed and grazed instead.  Interior forestland trails, prairies, meadows, brakes, and berry patches--created and maintained by fire--were abandoned and began converting to trees.  Near the end of the decade, probably in 1849 or 1850, the first of a century-long series of catastrophic forest fires took place in the region.  These wildfires were so large and notable they became known as the "Great Fires" and acquired individual names: the Yaquina, the Coos, the Nestucca, the Tillamook.

This thesis examines the change in vegetation patterns of the Coast Range of western Oregon (see Map 1.01) from late pre-European contact ("precontact") time: beginning in the late 15th century, in 1491 (before European diseases were introduced into North America); through early historical time, until 1951 (the year of the last significant Tillamook fire).  It is the first study to place the region's precontact cultural landscape patterns in context to the fuel histories and boundaries of subsequent forest wildfires.

A certain amount of history has been written and documented about the Oregon Coast Range ("Coast Range" or "the Range") forest fires of ca. 1849 to 1951 (e.g., Gannett 1902; Morris 1934b; Pyne 1982), but--with the notable exception of the Willamette Valley and the eastern slope of the Range--very little has been written about pre-European contact ("precontact") Indian burning practices in the area.  Eyewitness accounts of David Douglas from 1825 to 1827 (Douglas 1905; 1906), John Work from 1832 to 1834 (e.g., Elliot 1925), by members of the 1841 Wilkes Expedition (Wilkes 1845), and others, have described the times, locations and results of Indian burning practices along the eastern slope and floodplains of the Coast Range.  Early paintings (e.g., Warre 1845; Kane 1847) and land surveys (e.g., Preston 1851; Hathorn 1855) added detail to the written descriptions of the original journalists.  Drawing from these resources, subsequent writers and geographers (e.g., Morris 1934; Johannessen et al. 1971; Thilenius 1972), have been able to construct reasonably accurate maps and accounts of the burning practices and results of Kalapuyans who occupied the territory (e.g., Mackey 1974; Gilsen XX, Boyd 1986).  By comparison, very little has been documented regarding the burning practices of late prehistoric and early historical people living in the northern, western, and southern parts of the region (see Map 1.01).

Map 1.01        Location of the Oregon Coast Range study area.

LaLande and Pullen (1999: 267) term Indian fires in the southern Coast Range "limited and localized" in the "mid-elevation, mixed conifer forest stands" which characterize the "vast" majority of the area. Whitlock and Knox (2002: 224) go even further, claiming the presence of early historical prairies, savannah, and oak woodlands in the Coast Range were a direct result of prehistoric climate change and lightning-caused fires ("which were probably more abundant . . . in the early Holocene": p.206), and had relatively little or nothing to do with human burning practices.  Through the use of maps, tables, eyewitness accounts, drawings, and photographs, this thesis documents the use of fire by American Indian people living in the Oregon Coast Range at the time of contact with white Europeans and Americans in the late 1700s.  The same methods are used to describe the subsequent Great Fire events of 1849-1951 and the roles Indian fires may have played in their timing, severity, location, and boundaries.             

A.        Hypothesis

The hypothesis of this dissertation is that western Oregon patterns of 16th to mid-19th century Indian burning practices had a direct effect on patterns of catastrophic forest fires that took place from 1849 to 1951 in the Oregon Coast Range.

Indian burning practices are defined as those uses of fire in pre-European American contact time ("precontact time") and early historical time that resulted in changed or stabilized landscape-scale vegetation patterns.  Three principal categories of these practices are recognized: firewood gathering and burning, patch burning, and broadcast burning (Zybach and Lake 2003). Firewood burning involves the movement of fuels to specific locations before burning, resulting in areas that contained relatively little (or stockpiled) large, woody debris and designated spots of intense, repeated and prolonged heat.  Patch burning is defined as having a specific purpose and involving fuels within a bounded area, such as burning an older huckleberry patch, a segment of trail, or a field of weeds. Broadcast burning is the practice of setting fire to the landscape for multiple purposes and with general boundaries, such as burning a prairie to cure tarweed seeds, eliminate Douglas-fir seedlings, expose reptiles and burrowing mammals, and to harvest insects.

Maps, tables, and figures are used to show differences in cultural landscape patterns resulting from Indian burning practices.  Cultural landscape patterns are landscape-scale designs created and maintained by systematic human burning (and/or by other land management processes), due to their origin and appearance (Bailey and Winkler 2001).  Landscape patterns, for purposes of this dissertation, are considered at regional (hundreds of thousands or millions of acres), basin (thousands or tens of thousands of acres), and local (dozens or hundreds of acres) scales.  These patterns are shown to vary between northern, eastern, western, and southern parts of the Coast Range due to differences in national and tribal traditions, topography, climate, vegetation, and distance from the ocean.  The "cultural legacy" of combined burning actions is shown to have a direct effect on subsequent patterns of catastrophic forest fires in the same region.  Cultural legacy is defined as the evidence of trails, savannah, prairies, fields, berry patches, brakes, balds and other environmental indications of human land uses that persist through time.  Catastrophic fires are defined as wildfire events that are greater than 100,000 acres in size.  Patterns of burning and wildfire include similarities and differences in sources and locations of ignition; locations and extent of fire boundaries; timing, frequency, seasonality, and intensity of fires; and effects of fire on local human and wildlife populations.

The terms "Indian" and "American Indian" will be used interchangeably to denote people who lived in the Oregon Coast Range in precontact and early historical time, in accordance with current and accepted use of these terms by the peers and descendents of these people.  "Tribes" will be used in the same manner as currently used by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Coquille Indian Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw.  "Nation" will be used to designate adjacent Indian tribes associated by proximity and a shared language, such as the Chinook Nation of the 1940s that became Chinook Indian Tribe, Inc. in 1953: specifically the Chinook and Athapaskan nations on the Columbia, the Kalapuya and Athapaskan nations of the Willamette, south Umpqua, and upper Coquille valleys, and the Koos, Siuslaw, Yakona, and Salish nations of the coast.  Tribes and nation names will attempt to use the earliest accepted historical spellings, rather than modernized spellings or European terms.  "White" will be used to denote predominantly European and American Caucasian immigrants to the Coast Range in early historical time, with the acknowledgement that many of these people were of Iroquois, Hawaiian, Chinese, or African ancestry.  In this instance, the term "white" is intended to represent people of western European culture, rather than a particular race or skin color.

Plants and animals are considered "native" to the Oregon Coast Range if they were present in the environment before 1770. Species are referenced by accepted local names, rather than "common" names (e.g., "boomer" vs. "mountain beaver"; "chittam" vs. "Cascara buckthorn"), and are identified by their current scientific latin names in Appendix A.    

B. Physical Setting

This dissertation concerns people, fire, and the use of fire by people in a particular region of western North America.  People first entered the Oregon Coast Range more than 10,000 years ago, probably by foot or watercraft.  The use of fire by people in the region was coincidental with their arrival; if people didn't arrive with fire, they probably manufactured it within a few hours or days.  The environment began to be transformed immediately.  For the first time ever, firewood was gathered, forests were purposefully fired, and grasslands burned.  As human settlements became more permanent, so did patterns of human use upon the land.  This section briefly describes the history of the land these people found, where they settled and why, and how the shape of the land helped to shape the patterns of people and their fires across the landscape.  

1) Geological history

A region's topography is largely a result of its geological history.  The formation of the Coast Range is relatively young compared to other areas of the earth and of the Pacific Northwest.  Its soils and elevations are traced largely to the erosion of older landmasses, undersea volcanic eruptions, tectonic plate uplift, and a series of cataclysmic floods.  According to Orr, et al. (1992: 167-202), the beginnings of the Coast Range are thought to have been about 66 million years ago, with underwater eruptions of basaltic pillow lavas that can now be seen on the shoreline of Depoe Bay, throughout the Siletz River Gorge, and as far east as Coffin Butte, along Highway 99 on the eastern boundary of Soap Creek Valley.  During the same period, the Klamath Mountains in present-day southwest Oregon were steadily eroding, filling the shallow ocean to their north with sediments that would ultimately become the Tyee soils and sandstones of today.  Ash and pyroclastics from infant Cascade volcanoes to the east were added to the mix, and the steady collision of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate with the North American continental shelf forced the mass to rise above sea level and moved the Pacific shoreline west.  River valleys and peaks were formed by erosion over millions of years; while rising and lowering seas carved the western boundary and upland terraces.  Lava flows emanating from eastern Oregon 15 million years ago added further definition to the Range.  From 12,800 to 15,000 years ago, a series of ice age floods coursed down the Columbia River, shaping the bluffs and islands along the northern boundary of the Coast Range, and leveling the floodplain of the Willamette Valley from Eugene to Oregon City with soils from eastern Washington, Idaho, and Canada (Allen 1982).  About 5,000 years ago the region achieved its current general configuration, as melting ice caused a worldwide rise in sea levels, flooding coastal river valleys and creating the bays, estuaries, and beaches found today (Orr, et al. 1992: 181-182). 

These events all contributed to the topography of the Coast Range, directly effecting patterns of human settlement and land use, including fire, from the time of discovery, more than 10,000 years ago, to the present.  In general, people have congregated and settled near the mouths of most major rivers and bays, whether lesser villages and campgrounds established along the low gradient areas accessible by canoe or other watercraft.  Upland prairies, brakes, berry patches, and grassy balds were heavily used on a seasonal basis, and were connected by a series of ridgeline foot-trails.  Fire was daily, and depended entirely on gathered fuel in the heavily populated areas and in seasonal campgrounds.  Fire was used seasonally to burn expanses of "root prairies", hunt, cure tarweed, rejuvenate huckleberries, etc., in eastern oak savannahs and in upland prairies and berry patches, along ridgeline brakes, and southern slopes and balds.

2) Topography

Fire is said to behave according to ignition patterns constrained by three sides of a "triangle," defined as weather, fuels, and topography (e.g., Martin 1990: 58).  In general, shrubs, trees, and other forest fuels will burn more readily and completely in hot, dry weather driven by wind, rather than in cool, moist weather or in still air (ibid.: 59).  Likewise, fire travels faster and hotter moving uphill rather than down, covers the landscape more completely over rolling terrain rather than "skipping" across flatlands, and tends to burn drier fuels on sunny south slopes rather than shady north slopes (ibid.: 58).  Therefore, the topography of an area has a controlling effect on local fire behaviors and helps to define resulting patterns of burned and surviving vegetation.  Topography includes slope (steepness of terrain), aspect (which direction the terrain faces), and elevation above sea level. Map 1.02 shows the Coast Range as sloping steeply east and west from a central north-south ridgeline that runs nearly its entire length.  On the west it is bordered at sea level by the Pacific Ocean; the Columbia River is subject to tidal influence along its entire northern border; and the Willamette Valley floodplain extends for miles on a nearly flat plane along many portions of its eastern boundary.  Its highest point is near the center of the Range, where Marys Peak reaches more than 4,000 feet elevation.


Map 1.02        Topography of the Oregon Coast Range.
3) Rivers and basins

People prefer to live at the mouths of rivers and creeks and to reside around bays and in valleys in the Oregon Coast Range for the same reasons they have always done so: freshwater; ready transport; access to terrestrial, marine and riverine foods; aesthetics.  Currently, most people who live in the Coast Range reside near the mouth of the Willamette River, near the mouths of its tributaries, near the mouth of the Columbia River, or along the bays and estuaries of coastal rivers (see Map 1.03).  Early journalists (e.g., Howay, 1788; Lewis and Clark, 1805-1806; Alexander R. McLeod, 1826-1828; Charles Wilkes, 1841) have reported similar distributions of people in early historical time; archaeologists (e.g., Strong: XX; Hall: XX; Aikens: XX) have found the same patterns for prehistoric time as well.  Until recently, when people began to heat their homes with electricity, steam, coal, and oil instead of wood, and began to use automobiles instead of feeding herds of ungulates for food or transportation, areas of Coast Range settlement were quartered in grasslands, had relatively few trees, and most dead wood was found gathered or stacked for later use in ovens, stoves, or firepits.  No evidence has been found that is contrary to this assessment, and it is difficult to imagine a circumstance that would allow for much difference.   


Map 1.03        Rivers and counties of the Oregon Coast Range.

The fact that people become associated with the rivers and valleys they occupy is demonstrated by the names on the land of the Oregon Coast Range.  Rivers entering the Pacific Ocean from the east are named Coquille, Coos, Umpqua, Siuslaw, Alsea, Yaquina, Nestucca, Tillamook, and Nehalem; after the precontact communities that lived along their bays and traveled their lengths by foot and canoe.  Rivers that enter the Columbia from the south are named Clatsop, Klaskanie, and Clatskanie for the same reason.  Rivers entering the Willamette from the west are named Long Tom, Luckiamute, Yamhill, and Tualatin, also for the same reason.  Even the original historical name for the Willamette--Multnomah--was for a people that lived on Sauvies Island, near the river's mouth.  It is reasonable to assume that most intensive firewood gathering, firewood use, trail development, and patch burning in precontact time took place near the mouths of these streams and along the low gradient areas most amenable to foot and canoe traffic.  Early historical records and early historical settlement patterns support this assumption.     

C. Climate and Weather

The second side of the "fire behavior triangle", after topography, is weather.  Weather is the combination of temperature, precipitation, humidity, airflow, and related phenomena (such as cyclones and lightning) that is occurring now; climate is the combination of averages, seasonality, and extremes of these elements over time (Taylor and Hannan 1999).  

Oregon Coast Range climate is classified as a northern extension of the Mediterranean climate that characterizes coastal California, with similar seasonal distributions but cooler temperatures and a longer rainy season. This means the year has two general seasons; a mild, wet winter and a warm, dry summer. There is little snow most years, except for the highest peaks, and that is usually melted by late spring. Likewise, most years have few--if any--days that reach a 100 F. temperature (Redmond and Taylor 1997: 34). Most precipitation falls in the form of rain during the "wet" season from October to March, during which time most days are cloudy and moist (Redmond and Taylor 1997: 28).

1) Rainfall

Map 1.04 shows average annual rainfall for the Oregon Coast Range for a 30-year period from 1961 to 1991. Notice that the wetter lands tend toward the northernmost peaks of the highest elevations. The driest land is in the eastern Coast Range, and coastal beaches have less measurable rainfall (but far more fog), than Douglas-fir forestlands a few miles inland and a few hundred feet higher elevation.

Snow. The snows of 1861, 1881-82 (Lee and Jackson, 1984: 42) and October, 1936 (Starker, 1939: 47) were all noted for the vast amounts of livestock they killed on the ranges of the Willamette Valley and eastern Coast Range. Prairie lands that had been cleared and maintained by Indian fires had subsequently been kept clear of tree growth by grazing cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, and goats. There is some evidence that reductions in grazing associated with the livestock mortality of those years resulted in the spreading of Douglas-fir to many former hillside pasturages (CITE). Starker also mentions a "a similar wet snow about twenty years previous" to the 1936 event that apparently broke the tops and limbs off a number of trees in the Soap Creek area and covered the ground with debris from the breakage.

2) Temperature and Humidity

Table 1.01 was assembled between 1961 and 1991 from weather data stations marked with white dots and their names on Map 1.04. Locations marked with red dots are former weather station sites for which historical records are available, but which do not gather data at the present time.

Map 1.04        Precipitation of the Oregon Coast Range, 1961-1990.

Table 1.01       Oregon Coast Range seasonal climate, 1961-1990.

Map 1.04 Location

"Killing Frost" (28 F.)

Rain (7.0+ in.)

 

Annual Ave. (in.)

Warm (High Temp >65 F/mo)

Dry (<3.0 in/mo)

 

Frost Free Days

 

First

Last

Fall

Winter

     

NORTH

           

First

Last

First

Last

Days

Astoria

Dec. 11

Mar. 3

Nov.

Feb.

66.42

July

Sep.

June

Sep.

283

Nehalem

   

Oct.

Apr.

121.74

     

July

Aug.

 

Oregon City

Dec. 6

Feb. 21

Dec.

Jan.

47.06

May

Sep.

May

Sep.

290

Portland KGW

Dec. 20

Feb. 3

Dec.

---

43.15

May

Sep.

Apr.

Sep.

320

Seaside

Nov. 3

Feb. 19

Nov.

Mar.

74.46

June

Sep.

June

Aug.

284

St. Helens

Nov. 27

Feb. 20

---

---

42.76

May

Oct.

Apr.

Sep.

 

EAST

                         

Beaverton

Nov. 26

Mar. 9

---

---

39.77

May

Sep.

Apr.

Oct.

262

Corvallis

Nov. 26

Mar. 8

Dec.

---

42.67

May

Sep.

Apr.

Sep.

263

Corvallis W.B.

Nov. 26

Feb. 16

Nov.

Mar.

66.13

May

Sep.

May

Sep.

284

Cottage Grove

Nov. 10

Apr. 14

Nov.

Dec.

45.54

May

Oct.

May

Sep.

210

Dallas

Nov. 12

Mar. 23

Nov.

Jan.

48.42

May

Oct.

Apr.

Sep.

235

Dilley

   

Dec.

Jan.

44.2

     

Apr.

Sep.

 

Eugene WSO

   

Nov.

Jan.

49.25

May

Sep.

May

Sep.

259

Fern Ridge

Dec. 1

Feb. 19

Dec.

---

41.63

May

Sep.

Apr.

Oct.

286

Forest Grove

Nov. 12

Mar. 13

Dec.

Jan.

43.86

May

Oct.

Apr.

Sep.

245

Haskins

   

Nov.

Mar.

73.52

     

May

Sep.

 

Hillsboro

Nov. 16

Mar. 6

---

---

37.57

May

Sep.

Apr.

Oct.

255

N. Willamette

Nov. 14

Mar. 13

---

---

40.78

May

Sep.

Apr.

Oct.

246

Noti

   

Nov.

Mar.

60.65

     

May

Sep.

 

Rex

   

Dec.

---

41.37

     

Apr.

Sep.

 

Salem WSO

Nov. 2

Apr. 12

---

---

39.24

May

Sep.

Apr.

Oct.

204

Willamina

   

Nov.

Jan.

49.96

     

May

Sep.

 

WEST

                         

Alsea

   

Nov.

Mar.

92

     

June

Aug.

 

Cloverdale

Dec. 18

Feb. 3

Nov.

Mar.

84.04

June

Sep.

July

Aug.

319

Newport

Dec. 19

Feb. 9

Nov.

Mar.

71.72

Aug.

Sep.

July

Sep.

314

Otis

Dec. 12

Feb. 6

Oct.

Mar.

97.27

June

Sep.

July

Aug.

310

Summit

   

Nov.

Mar.

68.86

     

June

Sep.

 

Tidewater

Dec. 12

Feb. 9

Nov.

Mar.

91.42

May

Oct.

June

Sep.

307

Tillamook

Nov. 8

Apr. 6

Oct.

Mar.

88.65

July

Sep.

July

Aug.

216

SOUTH

                         

Bandon

Dec.15

Feb. 9

Nov.

Mar.

58.91

July

Sep.

May

Sep.

310

Coquille

Nov. 27

Feb. 10

                   

292

Curtin

   

Nov.

Dec.

49.82

     

May

Sep.

 

Dora

Nov. 28

Feb. 20

                   

283

Drain

Dec. 4

Mar. 9

Nov.

Jan.

46.17

May

Oct.

May

Sep.

270

Elkton

Dec. 17

Feb. 9

Nov.

Jan.

52.17

May

Oct.

May

Sep.

312

Honeyman

Dec. 19

Feb. 2

Nov.

Mar.

76.01

June

Sep.

June

Sep.

321

Idleyld

Nov. 10

Apr. 5

Nov.

Mar.

63.54

May

Oct.

May

Sep.

219

North Bend

Dec. 28

Jan. 29

Nov.

Mar.

63.48

July

Sep.

May

Sep.

334

Riddle

Dec. 11

Mar. 6

---

---

30.11

May

Oct.

Apr.

Oct.

281

Roseburg

Nov. 25

Mar. 1

---

---

32.44

May

Oct.

Apr.

Oct.

269

Sutherlin

   

---

---

41.13

     

May

Oct.

 

Burning seasons.An analysis of Table 1.01 shows a tendency toward four seasons in the Coast Range: a) a warm, wet spring/early summer of low fire hazard due to air moisture, soil moisture, and fast growing trees pulling massive amounts of water from the ground and transferring it to the air through transpiration; b) a hot, dry late summer/early fall with moisture stressed plants, dry soils, desiccated grasslands with high fire hazard potential, especially on an east wind; c) heavy fall rains, knocking desiccated plants and leaves to the ground, filling rivers and creeks with water and fish; and d) killing frosts, desiccating brackenfern prairies and woodland shrubs and trees, mostly wet or frozen, but fires can spread on occasional east winds, particularly through brakes, across unburned balds, brush piles, and south-sloping berry patches.

Drought. The seasonal droughts of the Pacific Northwest have been noted as one of the primary factors favoring conifer forests over hardwood forests in the region (Franklin and Dyrness 1988). Many deciduous trees simply cannot survive long, dry summers without periodic irrigation (CITE). Graumlich (1987) analyzed tree rings to arrive at a 300-year precipitation pattern that identified specific years (1717, 1721, 1739, 1839, 1899, 1929, and 1973) and at least one decade per century (1790s, 1840s, 1860s, 1920s, and 1930s) of prolonged regional drought. The annual events don't seem to have a significant relationship to Coast Range fire history, but the prolonged droughts correlate closely with major forest fire events (see Chapter 4).

3) Lightning

The entire Coast Range has remarkably few lightning strikes or storms compared with the remainder of the Pacific Northwest (Morris 1934; Kirkpatrick 1939: 28), and the first reported lightning caused fire in the area didn't occur until 1927 (Kirkpatrick 1939: 31). This is an important consideration for this study because of the region's history of forest fires and the existence of numerous early historical prairies, meadows, brakes, and balds in Alseya Valley. These landscape features could have only been made and maintained through regular Indian burning--no other cause can be identified.

 

Passed over some beautiful farming lands low grumbling thunder heard at a distance and I think this is the third time I have heard thunder in the Territory as thunder and Lightening is varry rare From what cause I cannot tell it may be possibly on account of the lowness of the clouds which rest on the mountains and in fact on the earth even in the vallies
---James Clyman, June 4, 1845

Map 1.05 Shows the locations of more than 2,600 lightning storms recorded over a seven-year period in Oregon, from 1925 to 1931. Note the pattern from southwest, in the Biscuit fire area of the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, to the northeast, along the crest of the Cascade Range, thereby almost entirely missing the Coast Range.

Map 1.06 Shows the locations of all lightning strikes recorded in Oregon over a five-year period, from 1992 to 1996. Note the remarkably few number to strike in the Coast Range, although strikes are common throughout the Klamath-Siskiyous, and along the crest of the Cascade Range.

Map 1.07 . Shows the location of 5,300 lightning fires in Oregon mapped over a seven-year period from 1926 to 1931. Note the relatively large number of fires in the Klamath Siskiyous, and along the crest of the Cascade Range, and the almost complete absence of lightning caused fires during the same time period in the Coast Range.

Map 1.05 Lightning storms in Oregon, 1925-1931.

Map 1.06       Lightning strikes in Oregon, 1992-1996.

Map 1.07 Lightning fires in Oregon, 1925-1931.
4) Wind. The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 traveled due north from California to southern Washington, including the Oregon Coast Range in its path. Over 11 billion feet of commercial timber were estimated to have been blown down during the course of this event (Lucia, c.1963: 50). In April, 1931, a "dust storm" blew in from the northeast, spreading wildfires through coastal forests and farms (Grant, 1990: 7) and causing a homefire at the southeastern base of Coffin Butte to blow charred shingles "1/4 to 1/2 mile toward" the southwest (Rohner and Rohner, 1993: 5). This storm was noted by residents in both Lincoln and Benton counties as a heavy east wind bearing so much red "alkali" dust from "eastern Oregon" that it caused the day to become dark and people to become "scared, it was so eerie" (ibid.: 5). .

Map 1.08

Map 1.08 Prevailing wind patterns of the Oregon Coast Range.

D. Vegetation and Fuel Patterns

The final side of the "fire behavior triangle," after topography and weather, is fuel.  For forested areas, trees and shrubs form the bulk of available fuel.  For grasslands, shrublands, and prairies, grasses, ferns, and brush species comprise most available fuel.  Map 1.09 shows the north-south distribution patterns of the principal wildfire fuel types of the Oregon Coast Range.  Three types of patterns dominate: along the coastal "fog-belt", Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and redcedar are the primary conifer trees and red alder and bigleaf maple are the major broadleaf species; the eastern Coast Range is dominated by the cities, towns, and farms of the Willamette and Umpqua river lowlands, with native and exotic grasses, ferns, white oak, black cottonwood, and Oregon ash forming most of the available fuel in unmanaged areas; the remaining central part of the Range is dominated by some of the largest and fastest growing mixed and "pure" stands of Douglas-fir in the world, stretching northward from the Middle Fork Coquille and extending through the wettest and steepest lands of the Coast Range in an unbroken conifer forest that reaches completely to the Columbia River, straddling all four subregions and connecting them all together with a nearly unbroken shifting mosaic of some of the largest and fastest growing conifer trees ever measured. These are also the ingredients for some of the largest and most destructive forest wildfires in history--massive amounts of living and dead, pitchy, conifer fuels, grasses, and ferns per acre for tens of thousands of contiguous acres; an unbroken, rolling topography that stretches from north to south the entire length of the region; and seasonal droughts, often accompanied by low humidity, hot temperatures, and dry, east winds.

Map 1.09        Native vegetation patterns of the Oregon Coast Range.

E. Summary

The three principal "fire triangle" components of wildfire and controlled burns are fuel, weather, and topography. All else that is needed is a source of ignition. The Oregon Coast Range has abundant forest and grassland fuel, regular seasonal droughts and wind patterns that are ideal for landscape-scale burning practices and wildfire events; a long history of both, and a varied topography that includes large expanses each of flat, sloping, steep, and heavily dissected terrain. Every hour, day and year people start and/or maintain thousands of fires in a systematic arrangement that borders and crosses the entire Coast Range landscape; typically in patterns that reflect the spatial demographics of the population at any given point in time.


From the late 1400s until the late 1840s, and for a period of time likely extending more than 10,000 years before then, the Coast Range was populated by a wide variety and large number of native American Indian cultures, all of whom undoubtedly used fire skillfully on a daily and constant basis. The history of forest wildfires for this period is incomplete, but a great deal can be inferred by the trails systems, expansive prairies, oak savannah, wild berry patches, and other "cultural legacy" left behind by these people.

From 1849 through 1951, a series of catastrophic forest fires took place in the Coast Range that transformed 100s of thousands of forested acres to charred snags. Wildlife habitat was often burned at a rate of tens of thousands of acres a day during the course of these Great Fires. From 1952 until 2003, only a few Coast Range fires occurred that could be termed "large", and none approached 100,000 acres in size. This thesis addresses the question of whether the use of fire across the landscape by Indian people over the span of 350+ years prior to 1849, had any relationship to a subsequent series of catastrophic forest fires, that lasted until 1951. Specifically, were their differences or similarities in the seasonal timing of large scale fires? Common or differing causes and locations of ignition? Common or differing burn boundaries?

To better answer this question, the entire region was divided into four subregions: North, East, West, and South for comparison. Each has distinct drainage patterns, weather patterns, vegetation patterns, and human use and settlement patterns; both in precontact and historical time.


North is dominated by the Columbia River, the Willamette River from the Falls to its mouth, the heavily dissected terrain of the Nehalem River basin, and Clatsop Spit. It is mostly forested with conifers: spruce, hemlock, cedar and shorepine on the western edge, and Douglas-fir dominated forests throughout the remainder, with oak appearing in groves and scatterings as far west as Oak Point, at Fanny's Bottom, an old Klaskani townsite. Annual spring floods, caused by the melting snows of Rocky Mountain and Cascade Range glaciers and snowpack, regularly inundate and erode the banks of the Columbia. Daily tides reach the entire northern length of the Coast Range, from Astoria to Portland, and extend along its entire western, Pacific ocean, boundary. Its southern boundary is dominated by Saddle Mountain, one of the wettest areas of the Coast Range; its eastern boundary is dominated by Sauvies Island, one of the driest and most regularly flooded areas of the Range.


East is dominated by the floodplains and upland prairies of the Willamette River, with oak, cottonwood, willow, and other deciduous trees being the most widespread species. Douglas-fir and some true fir forests dominate the western peaks and valleys of the subregion; which are entirely drained by a north-south series of west to east flowing rivers that empty into the Willamette River; which forms the eastern boundary of the region. Elevation ranges from the grassy balds of Marys Peak, at over 4,000 feet elevation, to Willamette Falls, whose pool is not too much above tidewater. East is the driest, flattest, and most generally low elevation (below 400 feet) of the subregions; it also has the least amount of conifer forest and some of the poorest soils and weather for Douglas-fir and hemlock.


West is dominated by the Pacific Ocean along its entire western boundary; Marys Peak along its common ridgeline boundary with the eastern subregion; Tillamook Bay to the north and Table Mountain to the south. Tideland is usually either rocky or sandy, often lined with a thin strip of shorepine, usually only a few hundred yards wide and rarely a mile wide. To the immediate east the shorepine is another north-south strip of spruce-hemlock forest, that extends as far inland as the fogbelt climate it requires for dominance. Inland from the coastal fogbelt forest, and extending throughout the remainder of the subregion, is a great north-south swath of Douglas-fir forest that is the setting for some of the fastest growing conifer forests in the world and some of the largest and most memorable forest fires in history. The highest peaks and ridgelines are often characterized by grassy balds, brackenfern prairies, and occasional stands of true fir trees.


South is defined by the mainstem Umpqua River Valley, the coastal cranberry bogs, and the Port Orford and myrtlewood forests of the Coos and Coquille river basins. Coos Bay was the scene of some of the first extensive clearcutting and sawmilling in the Coast Range, when those industries were undertaken to help satisfy the rebuilding of San Francisco and the expansion of region-wide goldmining in the early 1850s. In 1868, the Coos Fire consumed more than 100,000 acres of prime timberland in just a few weeks time. South is dryer, warmer, and lower in elevation than West or North, but wetter, cooler, and generally higher in elevation that East. The Umpqua Valley area was inhabited by Kalapuyan people who maintained an oak savannah similar to the savannah maintained by other Kalapuyans in the Willamette Valley. Black oak and tanoak are more common in the southern region, though, while white oak is the most widespread tree species in the East; and no species of oak is common throughout most of the western and northern subregions.