Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tillamook Forest Center

Mention Tillamook Burn today and the image of a charred, grilled cheese sandwich might come to mind. However, 77 years ago, it meant one thing: fire.
On a hot, dry day in August, 1933, a wayward spark at a logging site in the Coast Range west of Forest Grove, Oregon, set off an intense inferno. Fueled by strong winds and low humidity, the raging fire burned over 250,000 acres and destroyed 12-billion board feet of prime, old-growth Douglas fir in one week. Smoke darkened the skies from Portland to Astoria, charred needles rained on the coastal town of Tillamook, and ashes fell on decks of ships 500 miles at sea.
The fire set off a six-year jinx with reoccurring fires in 1939, 1945, and 1951. Collectively they became known as the Tillamook Burn. In 1948, Oregon voters approved $12 million in bonds designated to restore the fire-ravaged forests. These funds initiated one of the largest reforestation projects ever undertaken. For the first time, helicopters were used to drop millions of seeds. School groups, volunteers, forest workers, and prison inmates planted over 72 million Douglas fir seedlings, much to the delight of the local deer and elk population. Burnt wasteland began to transform to a lush, green forest, and in 1973, the area was dedicated and renamed the Tillamook State Forest.
The tragedy of the fire and the success story of the reforestation come alive at the Tillamook Forest Center on Highway 6 about 50 miles west of Portland, and 20 miles east of Tillamook. Opened in 2006, the center sits in the middle of a narrow gorge along the Wilson River. The building uses many recycled and green materials, and eco-friendly building techniques. For example, the water pond outside collects rainwater to cool the building, flush the toilets, and fill the fire-sprinkling system.
A visit to the center should begin with a viewing of the award-winning film, “Legacy of Fire.” Through dramatic film footage, photographs, and interviews, it tells the story of the Tillamook Burn in a riveting and fascinating 15 minutes. In the museum, interactive exhibits, artifacts, oral histories, and life-size displays convey the past, present, and future of the forest and highlight both the natural and human history of the region.

In the rear of the building, an attractive, pedestrian suspension bridge spans the Wilson River and provides access to a number of hiking trails. In the front of the center is a replica of a forest fire lookout tower similar to the one that first spotted the fire in 1933. A climb up 72 stairs leads to the top of the tower where interior displays show what life was like for fire spotters in the early 1900s.

The Center, owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Forestry, is free of charge and offers an active program of interpretive events. It makes a worthwhile stop on the way to the ocean or as a day trip destination.

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