Forest Fires Took Huge Toll in Early Days

Central Oregon has had numerous large forest fires over the years but until recently none were of conflagration type. Although large acreages burned the damages were mostly limited to the timber stands and natural resources.

Early news reports of fires outlined some of the fires and the results of the blazes. Many fires had occurred in early settlement but received little reporting. One of the earliest reported fires by the Bend Bulletin occurred in August of 1908 and was located on Paulina Mountain southeast of Bend. Head forest ranger of the Rosland District, F.P. Petit, “came to Bend Monday to secure men to fight the fire, which extended over an unbroken line for 15 miles and was traveling to the southeast.”

It was reported that Petit called for 150 men to fight the flames, but all that could be found were some locals in Bend. A call went out to Prineville, Shaniko and Moro for men to come help fight the fire. Pickup labor was paid $2.50 per hour to fight fire. Rain arrived to help control the fire.

Another fire of note was started by lightning on June 6, 1910 near the mouth of Jefferson Creek west of the Metolius River. The fire burned a huge area five miles down the Metolius River and up to the top of Green Ridge. Another fire started by lightning on the same day near Edison ice cave burned over 7,000 acres.
One of the most expensive early forest fires occurred in August 1924 near Wasco Lake. It required more expenditure of funds than any other fire on The Deschutes National Forest up until that time. It spread through 2,517 acres of timber in a very rugged area. The cost to control the fire was $18,125.

The Bend Bulletin reported that firefighters were handicapped by “fallen logs, thick underbrush and steep hillside.” Most of the fire fighters were men from the McKenzie Pass road construction crews. Local residents on the Metolius river baked pies and doughnuts for the firefighters. There were several large fires during the 1930’s including one on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation that burned over 100,000 acres of mostly sage, grass and juniper. The Minto Pass fire of 1945 was a hold over lightning fire that consumed over 4,000 acres just north of Santiam Pass. It only received a small note in local newspapers as the surrender of Japan during World War II was the big news item. But as the fire grew it began to share headlines with war news. A crew of 150 men was fighting the fire and U.S. Marines from Klamath Falls were requested to help fight the fire. Eventually over 600 men were used to fight the fire but it was finally extinguished by a late August rainstorm.

Fires have occurred on a regular basis in Central Oregon through the years and the fires of recent years have been more complex and damaging because of the extension of homes into the wildland environment and the build up of fuels over the years that typically would have burned in the natural cycle.