Honoring Our Valley History: Past Fires of the Snoqualmie Valley

The Loch Katrine fire that burned so close to our valley home in the last two weeks reminds us that the Snoqualmie Valley is as vulnerable to fires as areas in Eastern Washington, Oregon and California. 

Many early accounts of Valley life mention sweeping fires, and the photograph below records just one of the many fires that burned the face of Mount Si. The trees we see on the mountain today are only about eighty years old. 

Fires historically have been a part of the Snoqualmie Valley. The Snoqualmie Tribe and other Coast Salish Peoples maintained prairies on valley floors, including in the Snoqualmie Valley, through surface fires to promote diverse foods and maintain a habitat that was beneficial to wildlife in the area.

This technique lowered the risk of dangerous wildfires by keeping the underbrush cleared at the edges of the forests, reducing the chance of the trees catching fire. Over the last 150 years, however, the change in land management techniques has altered the Valley floor.

Fire exclusion and the introduction of non-native species have led to encroachment by shrubs and trees and dramatically reduced the cultural and ecological benefits of traditional harvests and controlled burns. 

One of the Valley’s largest documented fires occurred in September 1893. Wind conditions over a series of multiple days allowed embers to blow about a mile ahead of fires creating a series of fires that fanned out, starting at Preston to eventually causing a series of fires from Skykomish and Wellington in the north and Snoqualmie Pass in the south.

The story below is a composite of two newspaper articles describing the great fire of 1893. The first account appeared in the September 3 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, while the second was published in the Washington Standard of Olympia on September 8.

A special from Snoqualmie says Fire Sweeps Along the Snoqualmie and Skykomish. A great forest fire has been raging for the last three days all through the upper Snoqualmie country and on the upper end of the Skykomish valley and the summit of Stevens pass, destroying vast bodies of timber, several cabins, county and railroad bridges and the whole village of Wellington, at the west foot of the Great Northern switchback. 

Forest fires are raging south of Preston. They started on D. J. Graham’s slashing Thursday night and spread over a large tract of country, destroying vast amounts of timber. No houses were destroyed. One barn and several tons of hay belonging to D. H. Graham were burned. Crops and orchards were badly scorched. 

The trail between Preston & Kennedy’s coal mines was blocked for two miles. Only two families were driven out – those of A. Reek and T. Anderson, who went to Falls City. The smoke settled so thickly around their houses that they barely escaped being suffocated. Miss Susie Cook, the teacher at the Echo Lake school, who was at Anderson’s, went to Monohan to get out of the smoke but will return on Monday. The fire there is rapidly dying out. 

Forest fires are raging north of Snoqualmie and south and east of North Bend. Hugh Cameron, a rancher 10 miles north of Snoqualmie, escaped being roasted only by digging a hole in the ground. His cabin was burned, also that of L. W. Gore and A. L. Rutherford. A great many others have likely shared the same fate. 

Fire on the south and middle forks of the Snoqualmie River is playing havoc with the timber. It broke out at the eastern end of the Sallal prairie, and, feeding on dry ferns, grass and brush as it advanced, spread on all sides, but chiefly westward and northward, generally following the river, and keeping between it and the Lake Shore railroad. The dry ferns and brush made it particularly hot and fierce and it swept within a quarter of a mile of North Bend, making the heat unbearable and sending scorching gusts of wind before it. 

North of the town of North Bend the flames broke out in the scrub timber and brush on the side of Mount Si, and at night they could be seen leaping from one batch of timber and brush to another. They extend far into the north and middle forks of the river, and Thomas Niles, from the middle fork of the Snoqualmie, reports fires having swept each side of the river for ten miles, destroying at least 60,000,000 feet of cedar alone. The fire is still burning, and the whole Valley is enveloped in smoke.

Further along the south fork fires are raging and the wagon road over the pass is blocked and many teams are delayed near the summit. O. D. Guilfoil’s logging camp and skid roads were damaged to the amount of $1000.

The fires seem to extend all through the rugged ranges between the Snoqualmie and the Skykomish. The fire spreads all over the main range and some distance down the Skykomish valley. 

The 1893 fire was just one of many recorded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ada Hill’s book The History of Snoqualmie Valley records many mentions of early fires, including a reference to the 1893 fire.

“Oscar D. Guilfoil, an engineer, who constructed all the bridges for the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern, operated a logging camp on the Snoqualmie and in 1883 built a small mill at the western end of the site of the circular pond later used by the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company. This mill was destroyed by fire, and in July of 1889 Guilfoil with Alfred Snyder, Jerry G. Startup, Thomas G. Wilson, and Thomas R Fleming organized the Snoqualmie Mill Company. It failed during the panic of 1893 and was destroyed by (the 1893) fire.”

She also mentions two fires at Tanner, one in 1907 and another in 1910:

“In 1907 (the North Bend School District) had been consolidated with Tanner District No. 98 after the latter’s schoolhouse was destroyed in a forest fire.The (Joyner) homestead house and barn burned down in 1910 in a forest fire.”

The 1910 fire has been described as burning Mount Si, sweeping down all the way to the cemetery fence and burning the settlement at Tanner.

Even John Muir, during his 1889 visit to the Snoqualmie Valley, noted the history of wildfires in his book Steep Trails:

“The road leads through majestic woods with ferns ten feet high beneath some of the thickets, and across a gravelly plain deforested by fire many years ago.” 

A 1922 newspaper article describes yet another Valley wildfire:

“The hill past the depot on the way to Snoqualmie was called ‘Bald Hill’ because there had been a fire on it. In 1875 Jim Taylor wrote to his parents about seeing that forest fire from Tokul Creek.”

The 1907 Timber Cruise reports for the area show multiple areas of burnt-out timber stands throughout the Valley.

Multiple accounts also discuss multiple fires on Rattlesnake Ridge over the years. Photographic evidence shows the remains of the Figure 3 fire in the early 1900s. Edna Crews, in her book Memories of a Milltown, recalled,

“I can remember two summers where we watched as fire quickly enveloped the whole area of Rattlesnake Mountain. Perhaps some people knew what the fire was going to do and how far it would go, but I as a child certainly didn’t and remnants of that fear still remain with me today.”

The USFS used to regularly maintain a fire crew up the Middle Fork at Camp Brown, and multiple fires over the years have often required helicopters with buckets to fight.

The majority of these wildfires were and are manmade. Early settlers and loggers, in a careless moment, allowed a spark or ember to get away while operating equipment that was not yet technologically advanced to prevent fire risk. As safety features improved in the 1940s and 1950s, this danger was lessened, but the threat remains.  

Today, the risk of wildfires can be reduced through the following:

  • Checking weather and drought conditions and being mindful of any action that could cause a spark or ember in these high-risk conditions. 
  • Obeying laws regarding fires, including campfires. Never leave campfires unattended, completely drowning them when done, ensuring no hot coals remain; dousing it until your campfire is cold.
  • Build your campfire in an open location far from flammable materials, including overhanging tree branches.
  • Don’t have a fire on a windy day.
  • Regularly maintain your equipment and vehicle. Keeping equipment and cars of dry grass and ensuring no chains or other metal is dragging on the ground.
  • Don’t smoke while in risky conditions.

For more information about fires in the Snoqualmie Valley, click here.

[Authored in a collaborative effort by the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society Board]

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