On Aug. 20, 1966, during hot, dry weather with persistent easterly winds, construction equipment working southwest of Eugene on the Oxbow Ridge road in the Coast Range threw sparks that ignited roadside grass and brush.
Gusty winds rapidly spread the fire, burning 2,000 acres of mature forest within the first hour; within a week the conflagration had blackened more than 42,000 acres, most of which was covered with old growth Douglas fir.
Twelve hundred firefighters, 30 bulldozers, 40 fire engines and seven helicopters fought the blaze. One man died.
At first, many feared the fire would keep going until it got to the coast. People in Reedsport prepared to evacuate.
At the time, the Oxbow fire was Oregon’s fifth largest fire of the 20th century (after the three Tillamook fires of 1933, ’39 and ’45 and the 1936 Bandon fire). And it was the first large fire to be contained without benefit of a major change in the weather, testimony to the tenacity of the firefighters.
The Oxbow Ridge fire burned a swath roughly 6 miles across by 15 miles long, encompassing about 66 square miles (42,274 acres). Federal O&C timberlands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, comprised 57 percent of the total acreage burned, International Paper Company owned 42 percent, while other private lands made up the remaining 1 percent.
After the fire was extinguished, salvage logging of the blackened and dead but still usable trees began in earnest in a cooperative effort on both BLM and International Paper lands. Logging contractors were brought in from across the state. During the subsequent three years, dozens of salvage logging operations produced an average of one truckload of logs leaving for Eugene and Reedsport area sawmills and plywood plants every minute from dawn to dusk.
The last salvage logging was completed by 1971. Then the reforestation effort shifted into high gear.
In 1974, I hired on with International Paper as regeneration forester, and on the first day I drove to a ridgetop on the edge of the Oxbow burn and looked out over the biggest clear-cut I’d ever seen. By then, much of the replanting had been accomplished, but not all. And there is a lot more to successful reforestation than just planting trees. For the next decade and more, the Oxbow Burn was a big part of my life.
Every Oxbow Burn acre was reseeded by helicopter, hand planted or both. Due to delays caused by the salvage logging effort and initial shortages of Douglas fir seed suitable for the area, shrubs and other competing vegetation got a three- or four-year head start, presenting a major reforestation challenge. Herbicides were the answer, and virtually every acre owned by IP was sprayed by helicopter at least once.
Another serious problem was animal damage. Rodents and deer rebounded exponentially after the fire, causing significant mortality among tree seedlings. Several thousand acres needed replanting after initial seeding efforts came up short. But by 1978, the Oxbow Burn was declared “reforested.”
Some of the reforestation efforts overachieved, in that too many seedlings became established. That was remedied over the ensuing years by pre-commercial thinning by chain saw to get the young stands down to about 300 trees per acre. Afterward, to increase growth, the properly spaced stands were fertilized with urea delivered by helicopter.
Then, by the late-1980s, the new Oxbow forest was deemed “free to grow” — and grow it did.
Last month, after a 15-year absence, I drove from west to east up the Smith River and through the Oxbow area, and I was awed by the transformation. What was once a vast expanse of hillsides covered by brush and blackened stumps is now a beautiful, vibrant young forest approaching financial maturity.
Just east of the Oxbow Divide, I was pleasantly surprised to come upon an active logging operation, the first in the Oxbow burn area as far as I know. A contractor for Roseburg Lumber Co. (International Paper sold its timberland to Roseburg in 1996), Iron Horse Logging of Florence, had clear-cut about 50 acres of nice second-growth timber right in the middle of what once was “the burn.” A high-lead yarder, a de-limber and log loader were positioned on a landing abutting the main Oxbow road, along with several log decks.
None of the trees in the stand being harvested are older than 45 years, yet they are yielding very nice sawlogs.
Some people want to stop all logging, or at least stop clear-cutting. They claim the only genuine forest is an old growth forest and that industrial tree farms aren’t real forests.
I disagree. The new Oxbow forest is a shining example of the rapid renewability and value of Western Oregon forests and a showcase of successful forest management after a catastrophic fire.
Roseburg Lumber expects to harvest 600 million board feet from its 17,000 Oxbow acres over the next 10 to 15 years. If it takes 15 years, that works out to 40 million board feet annually, or about 13,333 log truck loads per year. Those 13,333 loads of logs represent a lot of good family-wage jobs in the woods and mills and will generate substantial tax revenue to help pay for government.
The BLM soon plans to begin commercial thinning its Oxbow acreage. Federal ownership in the Oxbow area is part of the revested O&C Railroad land included in Sen. Ron Wyden’s and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s proposal to break the region’s timber supply logjam.
If adopted, the BLM’s 24,000 acres in the Oxbow forest would be part of the 1.5 million acres dedicated to timber production, while another 1.5 million acres of old growth elsewhere would be preserved (until the next big fire, anyway).
See it for yourself. From a mile south of the community of Crow southwest of Eugene, take Wolf Creek Road to its end. Then continue southwesterly on the BLM road entering the Oxbow burn area about three miles past Alma (where the Lane County Sheriff’s Office has a mothballed work camp facility).
A white-painted message on the blacktop indicates precisely where the 1966 fire started. Continue past the logging site mentioned above, cross the summit divide, and drop into the Smith River drainage.
Continue down the river about 40 miles, eventually coming out on Highway 101 at Gardiner, just north of Reedsport.
The Oxbow burn is gone. Now it’s the Oxbow forest, which over the coming years will produce a large amount of forest products along with many high-wage jobs and significant tax revenue. Then, the logged-over land will be reforested and the cycle will repeat.
And it can and will be done while protecting fish and wildlife resources and habitat.
John Perry, a retired forester and former state fish and wildlife commissioner, lives on his Brownsville area wheat and Christmas tree farm.