Off Beat: Clark County cedes distinction 112 years after Yacolt Burn

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Clark County and its environs recently yielded a century-old distinction to another region of the state.

And what has the milestone brought north-central Washington? Almost 400 square miles of char and ash.

For the last couple of weeks, news coverage of the Carlton Complex Fire has used a Southwest Washington disaster as a yardstick.

The wildfire that cut a swath through Okanagan County in July has eclipsed the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which consumed about 373 square miles in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties.

According to our centennial coverage in 2002, the Yacolt Burn — which actually stopped just short of its namesake town — erupted in early September 1902 after 77 straight days without rain.

Its most southwestern advance was a spot fire in the Proebstal area, near Northeast Fourth Plain Road and 192nd Avenue.

People as far away from the blaze as Ridgefield had to light lamps at noon after ash and smoke blocked the sun. An estimated 12 billion board feet of timber went up in flames.

But the biggest toll was in human life, with at last 38 people killed.

In some Columbian stories about northwoods fires, people have shared family accounts passed down by their grandparents … how they tried to bury treasured family possessions before fleeing ahead of the flames.

And in one of those accounts earlier this year, we cited a tale of the Yacolt Burn written by Joan and Gene Olson. As the flames closed in, the Graves family ran for the safety of a nearby creek … everybody but Mrs. Graves, who said she’d join them in a bit.

When they returned to the ruins of their home, “They found her in the yard,” the Olsons wrote, “surrounded by the blackened remains of her prized possessions. “She died for her Singer sewing machine, and several jars of fruit.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.