Until last year, the biggest wildfire in state history belonged to Southwest Washington.
More than a century ago, the Yacolt Burn scorched nearly 239,000 acres in Clark, Skamania and Cowlitz counties. The fire erupted in early September 1902, initially fanned by strong winds from the Columbia River Gorge. It started after a dry spell of 77 days without rain, according to Columbian archives.
A statewide drought has produced bone-dry conditions in the region this year. Could a major fire like the Yacolt Burn happen again?
In a word, yes.
“It could happen again,” said Janet Pearce, a communications manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. “And this could be a year that it could.”
Clearly, a lot has changed since 1902. Firefighting tactics and technology have improved immeasurably. Road networks provide far better access to many remote places. Forest management has evolved, too. All of those changes would likely help prevent a wildfire from spreading into a full-blown catastrophe.
But other factors have introduced new risks. Many more people live in the forest now, Pearce said, which means more chances for a fire to start. Meanwhile, the landscape is dry and getting drier, she added.
At least 38 people were killed in the original Yacolt Burn, though the flames didn’t quite reach the town of Yacolt. A series of flare-ups followed in subsequent years. Much of the damaged area is now known as the Yacolt Burn State Forest.
The Yacolt Burn remained the largest wildfire in Washington’s history until it was eclipsed by the Carlton Complex fire in 2014. That fire burned more than 250,000 acres in North Central Washington.
This year’s wildfire season has started fast due to persistently warm, dry conditions. Officials don’t expect significant relief any time soon.
“We will be in a world of hurt with one spark,” Pearce said.