The Yacolt Burn: A look back at Washington state’s second-largest wildfire

Douglas fir burn scars
Older Douglas-fir trees (center) still show burn scars from the massive Yacolt Burn wildfire of 1902 in southwest Washington state. Photo: Florian Deisenhofer/DNR.

With the Carlton Complex fire (now 67 percent contained) in Okanogan County officially the largest recorded wildfire in Washington State at more than 250,000 acres, it may be worth looking back at what was, until now, the state’s largest wildfire: the Yacolt Burn.

Known also as the “Big Burn,” the fire started on September 11, 1902, and burned across 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington. Strong easterly winds and dry weather allowed the fire to grow quickly. At the time there was no clear plan for dealing with wildfires, which further aided its growth. The speed with which the fire spread across Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties surprised many people and gave them little time to evacuate. Thirty-eight people died as a result and many homes and buildings were destroyed.

This destructive fire ultimately led to increased and better-organized efforts to fight wildfires. The next several years would see the formation of new organizations to fight wildfire, new tactics, and the creation of a state fire warden’s office. Even today, 112 years later, the scars of that fire and subsequent wildfires can be seen at the Yacolt Burn State Forest, a 90,000-acre working forest and popular recreation area managed by DNR.

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