Almost 120 years ago, a collective of small fires, known as the Yacolt Burn, killed 65 people after the blaze spread across 500,000 acres between Sept. 8 and Sept. 12, 1902.
The fires were fueled by unusually dry conditions. It spanned the Lewis River, Wind River and Columbia River Gorge and became known as the largest forest fire in Washington’s recorded history.
One person who witnessed the fire firsthand, Grace V. Stearns, recalled the experience in her essay, “Personal Reminiscences of the Fire of 1902,” which was published in Clark County History by the Fort Vancouver Historical Society.
“Just at noon we began to eat our lunches, and saw rising against the bright-sunlit sky, a billow of white rising against the bright-sunlit sky, a billow of white rising south of the mountain,” Stearns wrote. “At first we thought it was a cloud. But it spread out, gradually shutting off the sunshine.”
Stearns, who was a teacher, continued to teach her class on Sept. 11 until 4 p.m., which is when “ashes and fir needles began to fall.” When she and her neighbors tried to gather people together to escape the blaze, they attempted to hide in a subway tunnel that headed in the direction of Amboy, but the fire engulfed it before they could reach the tunnel. As a few people in her party went off to rescue their horses, she camped out and waited for them to return.
“Across the fields we could see the Schumacher house and barns and a McCutheon barn burning. We feared a barn near us would go too. We viewed the timber on the other side of the creek with dread,” she said.
Stearns and her group survived, but some lost their homes during the blaze.
A teacher for Yacolt Elementary School, Brenda Cofer, wrote a piece called “The Yacolt Burn,” which was also featured in Clark County History. Her account details some deaths and potential causes of the fire.
“Many little fires started mostly by careless people, campers and slash burners,” Cofer wrote. “Then the little fires got together into one big fire near Bonneville. The fire was helped by a strong, dry east wind. It took ten days before it reached the town of Yacolt.”
As the fire approached Yacolt, the wind changed its direction and it eventually burned out upon reaching Mount St. Helens, barely missing the town. She listed some of the deaths that resulted from the fire. The fatalities included a family who was on a picnic by Cougar that was later found on the side of the road. Mrs. John Schmidt and her three children also hid in their cellar in Dole Valley where they succumbed to the blaze as well.
Former Clark County Historical Museum curator Pat Jollota wrote the history book “Darkness Next Door,” which noted the fire possibly originated near the Wind River in Skamania County and then expanded into Clark County.
“Loading what they could carry, families piled themselves into wagons and bolted,” Jollota wrote. “Those who stayed to save their possessions, very often were not seen again.”
She also said that back then, there was no firefighting equipment, no bulldozers, and no borate bombers.
“One could only pray,” Jollota wrote.
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