Silverton fire of 1865 burned about 988,000 acres

What's the biggest wildfire to ever burn in Oregon history? One of my friends swears the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned about half a million acres, was the largest. But I seem to recall reading about some other larger fires. Am I wrong?

— Ron S., Brookings

You are not blowing smoke, Ron.

The Biscuit fire was nearly half a million acres by a very rough estimate, but the largest in state history was the 988,000-acre Silverton fire of 1865, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Other huge fires included the 480,000-acre Yaquina fire in 1853, the 800,000-acre Siletz fire in 1849 and the 290,000-acre Nestucca fire in 1848 — all on the Oregon Coast.

You will note those last three were before Oregon became a state in 1859, and way before wildfire suppression was ever considered.

Since statehood and before the Biscuit, the largest fire in Western Oregon during the 20th century was the 240,000-acre Tillamook burn in 1933. That area burned repeatedly in subsequent fires, including the 1939 Saddle Mountain fire, which blackened 190,000 acres, and the 1945 Wilson River Salmonberry fire, which burned 180,000 acres.

In recent memory, the largest fire in our region before the Biscuit was the 1987 Silver fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres, half of which was within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

Sparked by a July 13 lightning storm in 2002, the Biscuit blaze was the largest and most expensive wildfire in the nation that year, with a cost of more than $154.8 million.

But remember, Ron, fires don't burn evenly. Like all fires, the Biscuit burned in a mosaic pattern. In fact, a satellite map revealed that some 20 percent of the area within the perimeter of the fire was unburned. Another 41 percent burned at low intensity, leaving green trees standing while clearing underbrush.

The satellite image also showed that 22.6 percent burned at moderate intensity, killing the trees but not consuming their needles. The remainder — 15.7 percent — burned at a high intensity, leaving little more than ash and charcoal.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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