Wildfires are the “Old Normal” for the Pacific Northwest

From the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Cliff Mass

My podcast today will both provide the weekend weather forecast and talk about the history of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

Wildfires and associated smoke are a major concern in the region, and some media, politicians, and others have suggested that wildfires and wildfire smoke are not normal and are a potent sign of a changing climate.

They are not correct.  Wildfires and their smoke are a natural part of the Northwest ecosystem.

What was not normal was the period of suppressed fire during the later portion of the 20th century.

A good illustration is the visit of Mark Twain in August 1895, a summer in which the U.S. Weather Bureau noted “the sun was almost entirely obscured by excessive smoke from wildfires.”  

Twain was invited to speak in Olympia, where the chairman of the reception committee apologized for “smoke so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests, which are now on fire”.  Twain retorted

“As for the smoke, I do not so much mind,  I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”

A Region of Fire

There is a great deal of research, some of it based on charcoal deposits underground and others from tree-ring cores, that fire is a regular feature of our region for millennia.   

This work has found that westside forests typically burn every few hundred years and eastside forests every decade or so. Wildfire is an essential part of Northwest ecology, something well-known to Native Americans, who regularly started fires to improve the productivity of the landscape.

When European explorers and settlers reached the region hundreds of years ago, they frequently commented about summer wildfires.

For example, during August 1788, European explorers sailing up the Northwest coast noted massive smoke from great fires (Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, edited by Robert Boyd, 1999)The non-Native American settlers that entered the Northwest during the early to mid-1800s noted frequent fires and smoky summers.  For example, in September 1844, a wildfire descended the hills and nearly reached Fort Vancouver, north of present-day Portland.  

A year later, the Great Fire of 1845 burned through the northern half of Lincoln County and the southern half of Tillamook County, Oregon, destroying much of the old-growth timber of the area (1.5 million acres).  In 1853, the Yaquina fire engulfed 450,000 acres, followed by the Silverton Fire of 1865 (covering million acres) and the 1868 Coos Fire (300,000 acres), all on the western side of Oregon.

September 1868 was a very bad year for fires and smoke. Residents of Olympia, Portland, and Oregon City were forced to use lamps in the daytime to carry on normal activities because the smoke was so dense and dark. 

I could provide dozens of reports in newspapers and journals documenting the typical smoky summers of the Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the Cascades.  

This smoky regime continued into the early 20th century, until the great wildfire of 1910, the Big Burn, seared a large area of eastern WA, northern Idaho, and western Montana.  An event that killed 87 people. That fire led to the invigoration of the U.S. Forest Service and the goal of actively suppressing fires.  

But it wasn’t until the 1940s, that the technological capability to massively and effectively suppress fires was in place and the result was a collapse of fire area in the western U.S.   The era of Smokey Bear had begun.

A plot of Oregon wildfires below tells the story.  A huge decline in wildfire area around 1940.   This collapse in fires was not climate change, but human intervention.

During the past few decades (the 1970s to today) more fire has returned to the Northwest landscape but NOTHING like the wildfires before human intervention.

  • Some of the wildfire increase is due to the policy of allowing some fires to burn (based on understanding the important ecological role of fire). 
  • Some of it is due to increased human ignition of fires (from our electrical infrastructure, arson, and accidental fire starts). 
  • Some of it is due to the massive invasion of foreign flammable invasive grasses into our region. 
  • Much of it is due to the massive changes in our forests, with fire suppression and poor forest practices, leading to unnaturally dense timber stands littered with past logging debris that burn so intensely and catastrophically that we cannot control them. 
  • Some of it might be associated with the relatively minor global warming (1-2F) that has influenced our region.  

I believe the evidence is that the climate change component is a small player today in increasing wildfire frequency, with the other factors being more important.

In any case…and the important message in this blog… is that wildfire is a natural element of Northwest ecology and meteorology and that the 50-year period of suppressed wildfire and smoke are anomalies from the natural state of the region.

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September 16, 2022 6:17 pm

A fine post to read about my region thank you!

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Sunsettommy
September 16, 2022 8:14 pm

Mine too.

Old Man Winter
September 16, 2022 7:24 pm

Thank you for another informative post about the PNW. Since The Team™
has shifted their “scare” theme from the melting Arctic (which isn’t cooperating) to a hotter, drier, & smokier theme, having accurate
information is a great way to challenge their disinformation.

I wasn’t able to enlarge the ODF fire history graph enough so I found one
that I can enlarge on my computer. It shows a lot of the fires are set by
humans & lightning, with a lot fewer fires beginning in 1940.

FYI- the largest bars are ’32, ’33, &’39, all of them drought years

Thanks again.

Last edited 16 days ago by Old Man Winter
John Tillman
September 16, 2022 7:53 pm

In 1826, Scottish botanist David Douglas, of fir fame, explored the Willamette Valley. Excerpts from his diary:

Saturday, September, 30th- Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near the low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say that it is done in order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food. … soil deep rich black loam… Passed at noon some Indians digging the roots of Phalangium Quamash in one of the low plains. Bulbs much larger than any I have seen, except those on Lewis and Clarke’s River [Columbia]…

October 1st- country the same as yesterday, rich, but not yet a vestige of green herbage; all burned except in the deep ravines. …on the elevated grounds where the soil is a deep rich loam, 3 to 7 feet thick on a clay bottom, some of the oaks measure 18 to 24 feet in circumference, but rarely exceeding 30 feet of trunk in height.

I first saw the Tillamook Burn(s) when its regrowth was still short in the 1950s.


Last edited 16 days ago by John Tillman
Mike Dubrasich
Reply to  John Tillman
September 16, 2022 11:40 pm

Great historical quote, John. Camas (Camassia quamash) was the staple of PNW native diets. It requires frequent fire to maintain it’s prairie habitat, without which is soon replaced by trees. It has been estimated that over 8 million acres of camas prairie once existed in Oregon alone, enough to feed 8 million people (assuming one person could eat an acre’s worth in a year).

Camas has an indigestible starch, inulin, and requires slow cooking for 2 or 3 days to break down that starch into digestible constituent sugars. So camas requires both broadcast burning and pit ovens. The oldest carbon 14 dated (from charcoal) camas oven yet found was 10,500 years old, indicating that cultural anthropogenic fire in Oregon was practiced that long ago (and probably much before then).

Jeff Alberts
September 16, 2022 8:12 pm

Wildfires and their smoke are a natural part of the Northwest ecosystem.”

I’ve been saying this for years here. Gov Inslee is blissfully (willfully) unaware of his own state’s history. Wildfires are the reason it’s called the Evergreen State.

Gary Pate
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
September 17, 2022 12:46 am

That’s why he is known as “Idiot Inslee” up here.

Gen Lee Schtiff
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
September 18, 2022 4:14 am

…but…but… he wrote a book! lol

Johan Meijer
September 16, 2022 8:12 pm

Moved to Portland in 1988. But if memory serves, starting in 2015 every other summer would bring smokey skies to the area. Before that the only smoke events were from planned grass burnings by the grass seed farmers in the Willamette valley. Thanks for offering the longer term perspective.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Johan Meijer
September 16, 2022 9:51 pm

Because recently they started letting some fires burn plus they are doing controlled burns

Mike Dubrasich
September 16, 2022 8:17 pm

Cliff Mass cites Indians, Fire, and the Land (edited) by Robert Boyd (1999). It’s a great book by a remarkably astute researcher. Some of the chapters are:

Aboriginal Control of Huckleberry Yield in the Northwest by David French

Indian Land Use and Environmental Change by Richard White

Strategies of Indian Burning in the Willamette Valley by Robert Boyd

An Ecological History of Old Prairie Areas in Southwestern Washington by Estella B. Leopold (Aldo’s daughter) and Robert Boyd

Yards, Corridors, and Mosaics — How to Burn a Boreal Forest by Henry T. Lewis and Theresa A. Ferguson (a classic essay).

There are many other fine essays by knowledgeable authors. The theme of the book, perhaps understated by Mass, is that Indians, the First Residents, regularly and frequently burned their landscapes. That kept fuels to a minimum and created the conditions whereby a few (<5) trees per acre could grow to great ages without being incinerated. In other words, old growth trees were a culturally-induced phenomenon.

By the 1800’s the native populations had been 95% wiped out by 300 years of repeated plagues of Old World diseases. Native burning had all but ceased. Trees seeded into culturally managed prairies and open, park-like forests. Fuel loadings grew enormously to levels never before reached in the Holocene. The catastrophic fires experienced by Euro-American pioneers were in fuel-laden forests unlike the historical norm.

It was Indians, not Ma Nature, that prevented catastrophic fires, and the elimination of anthropogenic burning, not fire suppression, that led to (caused) today’s megafire crisis.

That’s the lesson of Indians, Fire, and the Land. It is very worthwhile reading.

Mike Dubrasich
Reply to  Mike Dubrasich
September 16, 2022 9:20 pm

Similarly themed scholarly books worth reading include:

America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery by Thomas M. Bonnicksen

Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart

Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson (eds)

Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature by Charles E. Kay and Randy T. Simmons (eds)

Fire: Nature and Culture by Stephen J. Pyne

Old Cocky
Reply to  Mike Dubrasich
September 16, 2022 11:47 pm

That’s very similar to the reports of the British exploration expeditions to travel into inland New South Wales (which was most of the eastern part of Australia at the time)

September 16, 2022 8:27 pm

What Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) admits in his book “Roughing It” is that he and his travel companion mismanaged their campfire at Lake Tahoe and started a HUGE forest fire that got out of control, burned for weeks/ months.

This was before California was even part of the United States of America.

John Tillman
Reply to  Mr.
September 16, 2022 8:37 pm

California was a US territory from 1848 and a state from 1850, when Samuel Clemens of MO was 15.

Last edited 16 days ago by John Tillman
Reply to  John Tillman
September 16, 2022 10:34 pm

Maybe he’s just hopeful.

Reply to  John Tillman
September 17, 2022 10:53 am

Maybe I’m mixing up his time as a silver prospector.

And his references to returning to “The United States” (ie East Coast) could be the vernacular of the time in California.

But he did tell the story about the campfire getting away.

Just for you John, I’ll re-read “Roughing It” (which will be a treat), and clear up my erroneous recollections. 😃

Reply to  Mr.
September 17, 2022 11:38 am

Was he a silver prospector before turning 15?

Reply to  Felix
September 17, 2022 4:56 pm

His book will reveal when the fugitive campfire event occurred.
He relates so many misadventures, I could be crossing them up timewise.

John Tillman
September 16, 2022 8:40 pm

Why did my comment about Scottish botanist David Douglas’ observation of smoke in the Willamette Valley in 1826 and the Tillamook Burn of 1933 disappear?

Reply to  John Tillman
September 16, 2022 9:30 pm

It’s there, John. September 16, 2022 7:53 pm

John Tillman
Reply to  H.R.
September 16, 2022 10:39 pm

I see that it was finally approved, but my speculation as to why it was moderated has also been disappeared.

September 16, 2022 9:43 pm

Similar situation applies to Australia, major climate zone change about 130,000 years ago resulted in warmer and drier conditions, the mostly rainforests retreated and were replaced by eucalyptus that tolerates droughts and flooding rains, in fact rely on bushfires to regenerate.

The Australian Aborigines over time developed their seasonal burning tradition to burn areas in patches by season and therefore weather conditions being suitable. The burning patch would burn out when the fire reached the previously burnt patch so that a patchwork design developed across the land. But not tops of hills and generally inaccessible country.

Reply to  Dennis
September 16, 2022 10:30 pm

Almost every time there is a major bushfire crisis in Australia the left leaning media, the Greens and others claim a climate emergency.

But in local government councils where burning off and land clearing permits are issued the Greens influence prevails more often than not and permission is refused. The following wild fires are of course claimed to be climate emergency evidence.

Gary Pearse
September 16, 2022 9:46 pm

Jackpine cones actually need fire to crack them open so they can sprout. Doesn’t this spark a few neurons in the grey matter of the least dim minds of green Luddites?

Steve Case
Reply to  Gary Pearse
September 17, 2022 12:32 am

The obvious answer is, “No, it doesn’t spark their neurons.

Mike Dubrasich
Reply to  Gary Pearse
September 17, 2022 9:24 am


This cheer is the Pterriffic Nortwest, home of the mighty Douglas-fir. There’re no *#!&^4@ jackpines!!!

Where’re you from, New York City? Hoboken? Washington DC? Is that you, Mr. President? Time for your nap!

September 16, 2022 10:32 pm

Pictures from around Lake Tahoe in the late 1800s after clear cutting for the Virginia City silver mines show tree stumps three times as far apart as now, ten times as dense now, thus each getting 1/10 the water. The stumps were larger, making up some of that difference, but the cold hard reality is that Paul Ehrlich was right about overpopulation, he just had the wrong species.

Fred Middleton
Reply to  Felix
September 18, 2022 8:29 am

Significant tree density increase on both sides of the Sierra – Cascade conifer forest, California. Early black/white photographs support the ‘nature side’ of management. Open stand conifer. High density vegetation/brush in the draws/coolees (damp). Using harvesting when conducted by yield standards at 55% also generated the less prone killing fire fuels. Ground fuel management, primarily 1 hour-100 hour deterioration/rotting, contributed to the retarding of a killing fire. All gone today via the sustained yield management reversal, being a political tool, on government lands that has increased the fire fuels. Some bleed over onto private lands. 1995 If one flew over the California forests-government, the pattern of ‘checker board’ was clearly evident. Harvest blocks, government and private, would be identified with ‘fresh harvest’ toward 5 or 6 patterns ready for harvest again. Density – designed to burn. Frequently on harvest log location signs ‘Harvest it, or Burn it’. Picture harvest log deck Carson City NV from Tahoe basin – significant pre fire thinning underway.

September 16, 2022 10:35 pm

I doesn’t matter! You can publish factual reports after reports, but it won’t change the human climate caused catastrophe that the msm, government, public sector, are all in. Get ready for no electricity and food in the not to distance future. I’m stocking up on canned food.

Reply to  Surrr
September 16, 2022 11:34 pm

Economic Systems: The alarmists keep telling us their concern about global warming is all about man’s stewardship of the environment. But we know that’s not true. A United Nations official has now confirmed this. At a news conference last week in Brussels, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, admitted that the goal of environmental activists is not to save the world from ecological calamity but to destroy capitalism. “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,” she said. Referring to a new international treaty environmentalists hope will be adopted at the Paris climate change conference later this year, she added: “This is probably the most difficult task we have ever given ourselves, which is to intentionally transform the economic development model for the first time in human history.” The only economic model in the last 150 years that has ever worked at all is capitalism. The evidence is prima facie: From a feudal order that lasted a thousand years, produced zero growth and kept workdays long and lifespans short, the countries that have embraced free-market capitalism have enjoyed a system in which output has increased 70-fold, work days have been halved and lifespans doubled. Figueres is perhaps the perfect person for the job of transforming “the economic development model” because she’s really never seen it work. “If you look at Ms. Figueres’ Wikipedia page,” notes Cato economist Dan Mitchell: Making the world look at their right hand while they choke developed economies with their left.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Surrr
September 17, 2022 7:32 am

Its fascinating how Leftist ideology can destroy whole fields of scientific inquiry. If we are able to withstand the organized onslaught on civil society, future historians will have a field day with CAGW.

Let’s not get started on “men can get pregnant.” And it is mind-boggling for a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice to refuse to describe a woman because of Leftist ideological indoctrination. How is one to expect she will provide reasoned, Constitutionally-inspired judgements? She is just another Leftist drone on the Supreme Court.

Gary Pate
September 17, 2022 12:43 am

The weekly short podcast by professor Mass is a must listen for anyone in the PNW.

Peta of Newark
September 17, 2022 2:48 am

Wildfires are normal for diseased and stressed plants trying to eak a living on ancient and highly eroded soils.

Ancient means= Ancient
Ancient does not mean what has happened inside the last 3 or 4 millennia.

Fact is those forests and soils were wrecked by humans who lived there inside that millennial timespan.
Trees and forests are not hospitable places for humans, so we used them to our best advantage.
We burned the forest to create grasslands that then attracted large (ruminant) herbivores – things that we liked to eat and, are what we evolved eating

But burning trees involves, effectively, the burning of the soils beneath them and the life that went within. ##
And with every fire, the smoke dust and ash carreid away the nutrition of the soils.
When it rained after any/all fires, the water turned the ash and dust into slurry and it ‘tsunamied’ down the hillsides and out into the ocean.

That Is Not A Sustainable Process.
At some point, the plants, grasses as well as the trees will reach a Liebig Limiting nutrient and when they do, they don’t grow any more.
Effectively, a tipping point occurs

## Ploughs, Tillage machines, Paddy fields, Nitrogen fertiliser and Glyphosate are all = Incendiary Devices and they now operate on a global scale.
And when The Globe/Earth reaches its Liebig tipping point as it surely will, we will all slide off the edge.
(There’s goes one of Josh’s favourites = the ‘Cliff Edge‘ cartoon we keep seeing, remember, Human Animals cannot tell lies)
Maybe The Earth is flat after all – we certainly seem in a big rush to find out, that’s fo’sure

Last edited 15 days ago by Peta of Newark
Mike Dubrasich
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 17, 2022 9:35 am

Congrats! You win Nutball of the Year! Beat out some stiff competition, too.

This is why we want our land back. Ban the Feds. The rest of the country, and the world, are dangerously clueless. One nut wants to burn us out to save the jackpines! Another just babbles on. The alarmobots set forest fires!!! The whole lot of you are graciously invited and welcome to butt out of Oregon yesterday.

Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 19, 2022 12:40 pm

Ploughs, Tillage machines, Paddy fields, Nitrogen fertiliser and Glyphosate are all = Incendiary Devices and they now operate on a global scale.

Not happening in the forests of the PNW, yet we still have fires.

Tom Abbott
September 17, 2022 4:35 am

From the article: “I believe the evidence is that the climate change component is a small player today in increasing wildfire frequency, with the other factors being more important.”

You should have left the mention of “climate change” out of your article. It’s not pertinent. It’s a guess. It distracts from the rest of the article, imo.

Got to pay homage to the CO2 bogeyman.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Tom Abbott
September 17, 2022 7:37 am

Tom, do you deny it has gotten slightly warmer and wetter since the Little Ice Age? When reading Cliff’s discussion, I felt he should have avoided “climate change” and substituted “warmer.” Leftists have twisted the idea of “climate change” into an ideological bludgeon.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
September 19, 2022 12:41 pm

You should have left the mention of “climate change” out of your article. It’s not pertinent. It’s a guess. It distracts from the rest of the article, imo.

The local media and politicians are blaming the fires on “climate change”, and this is the audience of Cliff Mass’ blog, where the article originated.

randy julander
September 17, 2022 8:32 am

well done. not just the pacific northwest – all of the rocky mountain region as well. the forest here were well adapted to fire. aspens were far more prevalent than today and acted as a fire mitigator… conifers are explosive fires, aspen rarely crown. this has huge implications on streamflow – aspens overall use less water than conifers. more trees, more conifers means less water.

September 18, 2022 8:32 am

In 1980 we began to re-trace a survey done by a Ignatius Navarre in August of 1883. His notes referenced the fact that he could not establish bearing with a star observation or solar observation because of the thick smoke from fires burning in the area.

MM from Canada
September 18, 2022 1:33 pm

Very good post, Cliff. Well done.

September 18, 2022 6:43 pm

Interesting graphic posted in Wikipedia. Wildfires today are 80% less in burned acreage than the average for the 1930s.

comment image

Last edited 14 days ago by Duane
September 18, 2022 6:57 pm

Nice report, very informative Cliff.

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