Burned To The Ground: Bandon and the 1936 Inferno

Category: Exploring Nature Item

Back to Bandon and Vicinity

GPS Coordinates: 43.114193, -124.435927

The Oregon coastal environment may be a rainforest, but the forest is partially shaped through fire. Wildfires, naturally resulting from lightning strikes, are a force for renewal which recycle nutrients from dead vegetation and underbrush into the soil. The scars on the land may linger for decades afterward, but the forest will actually grow back healthier as a result of these periodic burnings.

For the native people, European explorers and American settlers, fire could mean the transformation or even destruction of their livelihood. No where was this lesson more dramatically and painfully learned than in Bandon in late September 1936.

That Fall, the Oregon Coast was primed for fire. A sustained drought became even more dangerous through the combination of high temperatures and low humidity. Several fires had already broken out in the forested areas around Bandon, but the residents paid them little mind. In the late afternoon on September 26, a new fire developed south of the resort community. It spread quickly along the coast, fueled largely by an oily, invasive plant known as Gorse Weed. That evening, the inferno had reached the town limits and frantic attempts by firefighters and volunteers proved futile. In many cases, panicked townspeople abandoned their firefighting gear, including fire trucks, and ran on foot for the beach or the edge of the Coquille River. Some climbed to the top of Coquille Point, where the rock and sparse vegetation protected them from the flames. From this lofty vantage point, they watched as their homes and businesses were destroyed. By the following morning, only sixteen of the town’s five hundred buildings were standing and nine people had perished. News accounts of terrified residents standing with their backs to the ocean, shielding their faces from the heat and smoke, quickly became international news.

After the 1936 fire, and for many years since, there have been attempts in Oregon to eradicate Gorse Weed or at least stop its spread. Unfortunately, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful and the weed is as wide-spread now as ever.

Although there were other huge fires on the coast both before, during and after (including a 1914 blaze which damaged an extensive part of downtown Bandon), nothing compared to the devastation of the 1936 inferno. The process of rebuilding Bandon began within days, but the fire had contributed to the town’s economic demise and the end of its days as one of Oregon’s best resort communities.

Related Information: Wildfire

Photo Credit: Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, Salem, Oregon.